Crisis in the Death Zone

Everest: based on a true story and written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy; directed by Baltasar Kormakur; starring Jason Clarke (Rob Hall), John Hawkes (Doug Hansen), Michael Kelly (Jon Krakauer), Emily Watson (Helen Wilton), Keira Knightley (Jan Arnold), Josh Brolin (Beck Weathers), Robin Wright (Peach Weathers), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Scott Fischer) (2015): Enjoyable movie based on the true story of a disastrous couple of days on Mount Everest in May of 1996. Journalist Jon Krakauer’s terrific Into Thin Air (1998) documented the affair, and while the movie isn’t based on that book, Krakauer does appear as one of the characters. 

The movie mainly follows the efforts of the first commercial Everest climbing company on the Nepalese side of the mountain as it returns to Everest and proceeds over six weeks of preparation towards another ascent of the peak. Jason Clarke plays the founder and first guide of the New Zealand-based company, while Emily Watson runs things at Base Camp. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the head of a newer, rival climbing company. Much of the rest of the cast, including Josh Brolin and John Hawkes as two American climbers, is involved with Clarke’s team, as is Krakauer, who is covering the climb for Outside magazine.

I could maybe have used a bit keener characterization. There are a lot of characters, and some are given scant time to stick in our minds. The main characters stand out, though, whether it’s Clarke’s Rob Hall, who may be too sympathetic to the burning desire of his climbers to summit, or Gyllenhaal’s goofy, somewhat reckless counterpoint to Hall. Brolin manages to invest his almost-stereotypical Texan with an increasing amount of frailty and indecision as the film progresses. Hawkes is typically fine, as is Watson.

But Everest is the protagonist of Everest. There are a satisfying number of Sublime moments in the shot selection, interspersed with the sweaty, nervous efforts of climbers spanning crevices on extension ladders, falling, wheezing, and struggling like Beckett characters just to crawl somewhere. The section of the film covering the disastrous efforts to reach and return from the summit of Everest are especially tense and thrilling. You know things have gone sideways when a massive storm comes straight up at you.

Much of the film really is factual, including two incidents that seem like pure Hollywood invention, one involving a pair of satellite phone calls and the other involving the improbable survival of a seemingly dead character. I’d have liked more Sublime. And I think the movie could have spared a few more minutes for some necessary exposition in order to provide context for some of the climbers’ decisions. 

Hypoxia causes bad decision-making, and those making decisions during the summit were clearly afflicted by it at points. There’s human error involved throughout the disaster, along with dreadful timing as a massive storm heads straight out of the Indian Ocean towards Everest on the day of the summit. But some of that human error was clearly the result of Nature defeating Man, and not simply Man Screwing Up. At the summit of Everest, 30,000 feet above sea level in the jet stream, the human brain is far out of its element. There’s a reason they call this elevation The Death Zone. Recommended.

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