“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act,” Jon Krakauer wrote in Into Thin Air, his personal memoir of the 1996 disaster on the mountain that claimed the lives of eight climbers. “Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”
Along with several others, Krakauer’s account forms the basis for Everest – the new, magnificently shot film from director Baltasar Kormákur. Early scenes get at the impulse Krakauer describes: Adventure Consultants is only one of many commercial mountaineer groups that take climbers up Everest, and it holds a modest party for its clients at base camp as they spend several weeks acclimatizing. Krakauer (Michael Kelly) is there, to do a magazine piece, and he presses the others for their reasons. Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a quiet man who downplays his financial hardships, admits he already took one failed crack at the summit. Now he wants another shot, and some schoolchildren gave him a flag to plant on the peak. He hopes to inspire them by doing the impossible. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) – a brash-yet-amiable Texan, who shows up wearing a “Dole/Kemp ’96” shirt – admits that climbing is the only time the dark cloud that follows him wherever he goes momentarily lifts.
Kormákur shoots these scenes in extreme close-up, the faces filling the frame like miniature landscapes – mirroring the breathtaking shots of Everest’s slopes that he pulls off later. I’m generally not a fan of IMAX 3D, but if ever a film justified the format, Everest is it. As far as I can tell, screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy adhere quite scrupulously to the actual events, which turns Everest into something rather remarkable: a quiet, focused character study, set against the most awe-inspiring backdrop imaginable. Kormákur does a fine job building the sense of joy at the endeavor, the foreboding that only the audience is privy to, the majestic and aching smallness of the climbers in the face of nature, and the slow slide into grief as the blizzard descends and scatters them across the mountain.
Among them are Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the bearded and laid-back point man for a competing mountaineering crew; Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), the base camp manager; and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), another mountaineer tackling a nearby slope, who spots the incoming storm. The closest thing to a hero the film has is Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the man in charge of Adventure Consultants. His pregnant wife, Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley) is a fellow climber who must tearfully leave Hall at the airport to tackle Everest alone. Weathers’ wife Peach (Robin Wright) also shows up, and both spouses play key roles in the final act.
I haven’t read Krakauer’s book, so I had the benefit of seeing Everest without knowing exactly what would transpire. If you’re able, I’d suggest going into the movie with the same ignorance. The real-life narrative both does and does not follow the beats and patterns of fictional survival stories. Sometimes people do conjure, in the midst of unthinkable pain and despair, incredible reserves of heroism, will, and endurance. But just as often they do not. Moreover, there is no rhyme or reason to it: what you’re able to glean of personality traits or moral character tells you nothing about who will meet what fate. Death and failure come upon the characters by almost imperceptibly small increments, seeping in slowly with the exhaustion and a bitter cold I can’t even begin to imagine.
Krakauer’s book generated a bit of controversy by criticizing decisions and lapses he believes contributed to the tragedy. But the filmmakers smartly avoid delving into assignments of blame. Krakauer himself plays a minor role in the narrative. Hall comes off as a capable man with sound priorities and judgment, but he’s also clearly used to success. Hansen’s humility, admirably played by Hawkes, is deeply appealing. But above everyone else, he has reason to push for the top when prudence calls for him to turn back. Another guide, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) chooses to make the ascent without an oxygen tank. The decision seems obviously careless in retrospect, yet Boukreev knows his capacities and limits, and proves instrumental in the rescue efforts.
If Everest indicts anything, it’s the commercialization of the mountain itself, and the atmosphere it fueled between the outfits. Hall and Fischer were able to form a working partnership, but capitalism’s competitive pressure causes resentments to simmer with other guides. Cooperation is strained, and the press of numerous climbers on the routes causes bottlenecks and disarray. Someone fails to fix a shared set of ropes at a crucial juncture, and bottles of oxygen somehow fail to be where they’re needed. As exhaustion slows people down, but the summit inches so painfully close, small losses of precious time mount into larger ones. Everest’s story is one of a thousand mundane errors, brought on by hubris and habit, each minor in isolation, but which cascade atop one another as the storm descends in one terrible evening on the slopes.
“It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier,” Krakauer wrote. “I thrilled in the fresh perspective that came from tipping the ordinary plane of existence on end.” I hesitate to call Everest entertainment, though it certainly has its moments. It does not strain for more than its story justifies. But it captures the majesty of Krakauer’s enigma, and the emptying, humbling, sublime grief that comes when the plane of existence tips too far.