Everest is a terrific movie, with a single major handicap it never quite succeeds in overcoming. The movie is very exciting, builds genuine tension, was very moving, and was superbly acted. It’s also a beautiful film to watch, though I really think just pointing a camera at the Himalayas would make for a lovely film viewing experience. (I didn’t see it on IMAX, but I suspect it would be spectacular in that format). But it’s also about a number of people wealthy enough to indulge their whims, people who choose to spend their leisure time and disposable income recklessly putting themselves in harm’s way. And about the loss of life among those tasked with rescuing them.
The movie does not claim to be based on Jon Krakauer’s best-seller Into Thin Air, a book I know well, but a controversial one. Surely, though, the screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, were familiar with it, and the movie is about the same 1996 episode as Krakauer’s book. On a big May climb, in 1996, an unanticipated storm hit a number of groups attempting to climb Mount Everest, and 8 climbers died. Krakauer’s book was very controversial, though in all fairness, he’s unsparing about his own ineffectual efforts to help with the rescue, which the movie also shows. Krakauer is also a character in the movie, played by the wonderful Michael Kelly as a bit of a self-promoting schmuck.
But Krakauer is right about this main point: climbing Everest has become an industry, with hundreds of amateur climbers attempting the ascent annually, and so many people try it that the safety of all of them is compromised. It continues, though, because the sale of climbing permits is a significant revenue source for the government of Nepal, and dozens of guiding organizations are able to charge up to $100,000 per climber. This film primarily focuses on two such outfits: Adventure Consultants, led by renowned climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and its main competitor, Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Hall is the film’s protagonist, in a film that deals generously with the stories of many characters.
So the film isn’t so much an expose of various calculations of greed that lead a whole lot of unqualified climbers up one of the world’s most dangerous mountains. It’s not really a celebration of the human spirit that leads all those people up that peak. It’s sort of an tribute to the blue-collar types, the hard-core mountaineering pros who lead all those amateurs to the summit, and the risks they run on behalf of their clients, and of the Sherpa natives who find lucrative employment making Everest climbs feasible. Above all, though, the title nails it; it’s a tribute to one magnificent, stark, dangerous, treacherous mountain, gloriously and lethally beautiful. The gifted young Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur paces the film beautifully. Above all, though, he manages to capture shots that seem impossible. Drone cameras? CGI? I don’t know. It’s a magnificent looking film, though, and the loveliness of the cinematography contrasts with the tragedy of the story. This time, the mountain wins. The human cost is heart-breaking. And so the central dramatic question of the film becomes this: why?
The first half of the film deals with preparations for the trip by Hall and his associates; the second half, with the ill-fated climb on May 10, 1996. We establish a number of characters: Andy Harris (Martin Henderson), Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), and Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), as Hall’s associates, and also the amateur climbers, especially an older Texan, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a mailman, Doug Hanson (John Hawkes), and a Japanese woman Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has climbed the highest peaks on the other continents, and wants to finish it off with Everest. We also meet a third group of people; the climbers’ families, most especially Rob Hall’s wife Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley), and Beck Weathers’ wife, Peach (Robin Wright).
I should also mention two other crucial climbers, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), and Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa). Boukreev’s portrayal was one of the more controversial characterizations in Krakauer’s book. Krakauer called him irresponsible for not using oxygen, but other climbers insisted that Boukreev was extraordinarily heroic, and that without his efforts, other amateurs would have died. The movie leans in that direction. Also, Dorjee stands in for the many Sherpa climbers without whom any Everest ascent would much more difficult than it already is, if not, in fact, impossible.
So: a large cast. A lot of characters to keep track of, though it frankly helps that a few of them are movie stars. Honestly, though, I thought all the characters were distinctive and interesting. I never found the large cast confusing, not remotely. It helps that these are all wonderful actors–Jason Clarke, Michael Kelly, John Hawkes, Ingvar Siggurdsson, Emily Watson. Clarke nails his Kiwi accent, and he’s otherwise terrific. Hall is conscientious and compassionate; he comes across as the one tour guide who probably should be up there, actually. The others come across, uh, less well, especially Gyllenhaal, who plays Fischer as a guy with a serious substance abuse problem, leading to carelessness and endangering lives.
The fact is, for an amateur climber to summit Everest is only possible because dozens of more experienced climbers lay down rope lines and build camps and cache oxygen along the way. And when too many people are on the mountain, those preparations are compromised. The ’96 climbers who died were let down by previous groups that removed rope lines, or drained oxygen bottles. And Rob Hall’s group doesn’t discover any of that (and therefore can’t fix problems) until it’s very late in the day; later than is safe, given Everest’s propensity for sudden, lethal storms.
And Hall is also let down by his own compassion, his very occasional reluctant willingness to compromise his own standards, to help a client he likes and respects; specifically, in this case, Doug Hanson, the mountain climbing postman, so memorably played by Hawkes.
I knew what was going to happen, of course. I’m something of an Everest freak, and I’ve read Krakauer’s book, and Graham Ratcliffe’s book, and Galen Rowell’s account and all the rest of them. I knew going in what happened, and I knew who died, and who, miraculously, did not die.
It didn’t matter. I was still powerfully moved by it all, by the scenes in which climbers used sat phones to call their loved ones across the world to say goodbye, by scenes in which we see characters we care a lot about fall off the tallest mountain in the world. Human beings are not meant to climb a mountain the same height as the cruising altitude of a 747. Human beings are not meant to go that high. People die up there. They begin dying the moment they set foot at certain altitudes.
So yes, to some extent, it’s also a movie about race, and class, and rich white Americans indulging a whim, scratching an itch, crossing off another item on a bucket list. And the deaths of those trying to protect them, indulge them, and the human tragedy of those deaths. Still, we climb. We see why people climb; why they feel like they have to do it. There is something magnificent about that, too.