Director: Balsar Kormákur
Cast: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin
Watch Everest online in the UK: iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
There is a good reason the body cannot physically cope with performing at 26,000 feet: we’re not supposed to be there.
Balsar Kormákur’s Everest is a gripping and often spectacular recounting of the early days of commercialised mountaineering, set against the tragic events of 10th May, when 12 people died during the descent of the world’s highest peak.
It’s to the movie’s credit that, while there is much to be critical about, from turning pristine nature into a rubbish tip (the early scenes at Base Camp look like Glastonbury after everybody has gone home) to the poor decision-making by leaders of the group, it is sensitive to the overall complexities and controversies of the saga. It is not the filmmaker’s remit to impugn the dead. While there have been grumbles about omissions and misrepresentations, it’s worth remembering John Ford’s maxim about printing the legend has become a cinematic truism: movies are primarily about storytelling, not documentary accounts of real life.
How much group leaders knew about the approaching storm and their collective and individual actions has been the subject of much debate. Screenwriters have to make creative decisions which move the story forward and make it work in conjunction with the director’s aesthetic approach. Charges made (in 2004’s A Day to Die For) by Graham Ratcliffe, a climber who was there that day but safely tucked up in his tent, that leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer not only were aware of weather warnings but were willing to put other groups in mortal danger, are jettisoned completely. It’s easy to see why. You can’t have a movie sold as a tale of high adventure and looming tragedy with two lead characters portrayed as unconscionable villains. (Hall and Fischer, played in the movie by Jason Clarke and Jake Gyllenhaal, paid for several hefty mistakes with their lives.)
One major point Everest does portray, which fits within the context of commercialised climbing, is the burden to deliver the goods felt by both men. Clarke is excellent in what is essentially the lead role. He portrays the doomed mountaineer as kind-hearted and desperately willing to impress clients. Nothing is too much bother. While Hall and Fischer claim there is no guarantee climbers will reach the summit of Everest, Hall, of Adventure Consultants, and his American competitor and friend, of Mountain Madness, felt pressured to make sure everybody got what they paid huge sums for.
They also had a journalist in the group, John Kracauer, upon whose book, Into Thin Air (1997), the film is directly based. Kracauer was sent to write an article for Outside magazine, his climbing fees waivered in the hope he wrote positive things about them and the experience. It was a business decision which turned out to be not so wise.
The ensemble cast is strong and the performances top-notch. John Hawkes’ Mid-West postman, Doug Hansen, is not a piece of Hollywood tokenism, either. He offers a good reminder that places like Mount Everest aren’t just filled with posh folk climbing to reinforce their already gigantic egos and superiority; Hansen was an average Joe, who scrimped and saved every dollar to partake in his major passion for climbing. Josh Brolin excels, too, as cocky Texan Beck Weathers, whose frostbitten injuries and evacuation from base camp leads to one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes: a helicopter reversing backwards off a mountainside in freefall (because the air is so thin it needs to essentially capture the wind below in order to fly away). It would look positively ludicrous in a far-fetched Michael Bay flick, but it’s what they really had to do.
For all the positives, it’s a bit of a shame the female cast is served so poorly. Only Emily Watson’s radio dispatcher, Helen Wilton, gets anything like the meaty roles the boys enjoy. Wilton directed the rescue mission and attempted to find out why things have gone south. Watson might be stuck in a tent for the entire running time, but she anchors the film and acts as the audience’s emotional cipher. Robin Wright and Keira Knightley, on the other hand, are relegated to dreary cameos as worried spouses back home. (It’s very strange to see Knightley and Wright playing such uninspiring characters. Were they appearing as a favour to the producers?)
Not to go all Werner Herzog on you, but Everest is terrific reminder of not only a famous mountaineering disaster, but also staggering hubris and foolishness in the face of nature’s utter indifference. It will no doubt lose some of its visual impact on the small screen, because it’s the kind of picture where size and portrayal of the environment matters. Watch it on the biggest telly you can find.