Because it’s there.
Climbing a giant mountain is not really something that has ever interested me. The idea of being in sub-zero temperatures for long stretches of time, coupled with depleted levels of oxygen and the possibility of falling to my death at any time, is not my conception of fun. The stories of people who do, however, are fascinating, and no mountaineering story is quite as gripping to me as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.
I first became aware of the 1996 events not long after they happened, I believe from a Dateline NBC story. The short version is that, over May 11th and 12th of that year, a freak snowstorm left eight people dead (Andy Harris, Doug Hansen, Rob Hall, Yasuko Namba, Scott Fischer, Subedar Tsewang Samanla, Lance Naik Dorje Morup, and Tsewang Paljor). Harris, Hall, and Fischer were all guides, so this made the tragedy all the more confusing. If the expedition guides on Everest were at such a risk, then was the increasing commercialization of the mountain really a positive for anyone?
John Krakauer, who wrote the phenomenal book Into the Wild, was a team member of Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants that year. He had been commissioned to write a piece for Outside magazine about the climb, which ended up turning into the excellent book Into Thin Air. The film Everest covers a lot of the same ground, but is not based on Krakauer’s book.
Everest (directed by Baltasar Kormákur and written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) tackles the story and does a pretty good job of being a Cliff Notes version of events. The film is centered on Hall (Jason Clarke) and Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), and their friendship/ rivalry as they bring their teams up the mountain. Hall is an Australian whose climber wife Jan (Keira Knightley), is pregnant with their first child. Jan has stayed behind but remains in radio contact with Hall throughout.
Fischer is an American whose Mountain Madness team originally had Krakauer (Michael Kelly) contracted with them, until Hall offered a lower price to Outside. This has caused a bit of a rift between Hall and Fischer, but Fischer seems to understand Hall’s reasoning (publicity for his company) and doesn’t hold a grudge. Fischer even has his own quasi-celebrity, Sandy Pittman (Vanessa Kirby), in tow. Pittman is a New York socialite who was making her third attempt at summiting the mountain, and was posting daily video entries online from base camp.
The other two people who the film primarily focuses on is Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a doctor from Texas, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman from Seattle who failed to summit with Hall’s team the previous year. Weathers and Hansen are cast as opposites — Weathers, a wealthy adventure seeker; Hansen, a working-class guy who is only back due to Hall’s urging and a steep monetary discount — who find common ground on the mountain and become friends. This makes the fate of both characters that much more wrenching by the end.
The inevitable star of the film however, is always going to be Mount Everest. I’m not sure how much of the movie was filmed on Everest, or even real mountains for that matter, but the film has a lot of breathtaking shots (the wife and I watched it in IMAX 3D) and when the storm starts kicking up about midway through, the tension really ratchets up as well. Outside of a few narrative switches and omissions for the sake of time, the film does a pretty good job of getting the big brush strokes down. Krakauer’s version is obviously more of an insider’s view of the event, but the filmmakers behind Everest made a smart move in making it more of an ensemble story. The wider focus allows the film to fill in some gaps from Krakauer’s version and, by the very nature of a third person narrative, allows a broader scope.
Everest is not a feel-good movie, although it isn’t bleak either. It makes very clear, through both the narrative and the character arcs, that the mountaineering life is incredibly dangerous and not for everyone. It doesn’t sugarcoat the danger of the sport, but it also doesn’t demonize the people involved. The film, like Into Thin Air, does make the case that the increasing (still to this day) commercialization of Everest will lead to more events of this nature. At one point the camera focuses on a group of “climbers” from another team as a guy explains their gear. The point is clear; Mount Everest is not a place for the inexperienced climber, and possibly not a place for anyone in their right mind.
I highly recommend Everest to fans of mountaineering lore and non-fans alike. It is a good summation of a terrible tragedy, and really doesn’t exploit the events in any major ways. It is not as all-encompassing as Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (which you should definitely read), but it also has its own charms due to the third–person perspective and wider focus. The performances are good across the board, and the direction and cinematography are above average. All in all, Everest is a success, exceeding my expectations.
Until next time…