Review by C.J. Bunce
I am an avid follower of the many chronicles of the May 1996 disaster on Mount Everest. But it all comes down to the brilliant storytelling of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air that really sucked me in. So compelling, his account made me feel like I was having breathing issues reading his novel into the wee hours of the morning. Russian climber guide Anatoli Boukreev didn’t like Krakauer’s account, so he responded with his own, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest documents Beck Weathers’ story. Each of these are worthy reads. Other accounts include Climbing High: A Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy, by climber Lene Gammelgaard, After The Wind: 1996 Everest Tragedy–One Survivor’s Story, by Lou Kasischke, High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, by David Breashears, and the Everest IMAX movie (filmmakers encountered the disaster climbers on their own climb and Brashears was instrumental in saving Beck Weathers). Krakauer’s story got a less than adequate treatment in the film Into Thin Air, starring Christopher McDonald. Which brings us to director Baltasar Kormákur’s 2015 theatrical release Everest, now available on streaming services and home video.
Fortunately Everest the movie is not a disaster. It gets the story right. The cast is nearly perfect. Yet it doesn’t match the thrills of the true-life adventure it adapts, and so a detailed critique is warranted. The screenwriters have pieced together all the key scenes and moments from the various firsthand accounts, sometimes picking and choosing so as not to adapt any single vantage point from another. Yet it skips over some key climax points that could have made the film so much better.
In a story where there are more males than females, why not highlight the two female climbers we do meet (played by Amy Shindler and Naoko Mori), instead of focusing on spouses (played by Keira Knightley and Robin Wright) whose only participation was a series of phone calls? In the two roles where women get plenty of screentime, Emily Watson and Elizabeth Debicki are left with recurring close-ups where they are supposed to show concern, yet they come off as emotionless. The actors were given little to work with. A directorial or screenwriter problem?
Part of the problem also is the missed opportunity for well-edited musical cues. Composer Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta, I Capture the Castle) provides a score that is neither thrilling nor matches the emotion of the struggle and despairs depicted in the film. It’s a sweeping score but never prepares us for what is ahead and never lands where it should. But the music is secondary to the writing.
The reason to watch the film is the casting and the solid acting of the key performers. Finally we get to see Jason Clarke (Terminator: Genisys, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as a strong, interesting, compelling character, in his portrayal of climb team leader Rob Hall. The other surprise performance is given by Martin Henderson as expert climber Andy Harris. Wake up, Hollywood, and get Henderson into more movies as his range and believability singled him out in a big, great set of performers. Jake Gyllenhaal’s effortless acting also stands out, as climb leader Scott Fischer. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that these roles are more heroic than the others, and so the other performers verge on frustrating.
Josh Brolin (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jonah Hex, Men in Black III, Milk, No Country for old Men, The Goonies) as Beck Weathers–the greatest survivor in the history of real-life adventure–doesn’t match the surprise and awe from Krakauer’s account. The writers instead opted to adapt from Weathers’ autobiographical account. Michael Kelly (House of Cards, Fringe, Law & Order, Unbreakable) plays Krakauer as well as possible given the material, but here Krakauer seems to be too easily dismissed as a self-absorbed journalist. John Hawkes (Deadwood, Lost, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays climber Doug Hansen as somewhat daft, yet Icelander Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson gets to portray expert climber Anatoli Boukreev as smart and competent. One of the most inaccessible accounts, that of Sherpa Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa), is left up in the air, and he is too easily left holding the bag as far as the dolling out of blame is concerned.
Who do we believe? Somehow all facts are present so much of what is lacking can be forgiven somewhat. An inexperienced team at the beginning of the climb delayed everyone, leaving many to die in the quickly developing major storm. The concept of taking paid amateurs up such a technical climb as the Hillary Step was unforgivable. Fischer and Hall’s unstoppable, daredevil egos drove them to their deaths. Yet these same personality types accounted for the heroics that also brought so many people safely off the mountain that day. So the bones of the story are all there. And to the director’s credit, two death scenes are appropriately shocking and gut-wrenching, as are scenes depicting oxygen-deprived climbers as eerie, real-life zombies.
Look for some small but solid performances by Micah Hauptman (White Collar, Parker, Supernatural, Iron Man) as National Geographic’s David Breashears, Mr. Selfridge’s Thomas Goodman-Hill as Neil Beidleman, Sam Worthington (Avatar, Terminator Salvation, Clash of the Titans) as Guy Cotter, and Clive Standen (Vikings, Doctor Who, Robin Hood) as Ed Viesturs.