I remember the 1996 Everest disaster well. It cast a pall over parts of our community that had come to revere the climbing exploits of Rob Hall and his late climbing partner Gary Ball, as a new incarnation of great explorers like Shipton and Hillary 40 years prior.
I had high personal expectations for Everest. I thought it met them. It was at once severe and beautiful. Hard-chiseled and poignant. Lonely and warm. “Enjoy” is the wrong word, but I’m very glad I went.
But the reviews have been mixed. I think that’s partly because lots of film reviewers haven’t ever meet a climber. Sample critique: “Who uses ‘summit’ as a verb?!” (Answer: Climbers.) But some of their critiques were deeper, if similarly misguided
Some critics were angry the female characters didn’t have a bigger role. I understand and agree with the general critique, and I loved the more gender-balanced take on the road movie genre in Mad Max. But this was a historical biopic about eight people who died. Seven were men. The two leaders among the doomed were men, and the two most noteworthy stories among the survivors were men, too. In that context, it can’t be any much of a surprise when it’s a male-heavy movie.
To the critique that the wives’ roles were unfairly reduced to crying over the phone, I’d say first that’s not true because Peach Weathers rustled up a helicopter from Texas while Jan Arnold tried to coax Hall off the mountain from New Zealand. And second, waiting for the phone to ring often is exactly what climbers’ partners do.
Others fretted the character development was thin, especially in act three, with all the protagonists fighting the elements in the Death Zone. Well surprise, surprise! The characters were a bit busy battling a horrific storm to chat with each other about their backstories. Climbing a giant mountain is incredibly isolating and lonely, even when there are other people nearby. Been tramping in a storm, with your hood pulled in around you? Multiply that loneliness by a hundred. That’s the sense I got from Everest.
This was a movie about people who climb like real-life mountaineers. When the going gets tough, they shut up and trudge on or they shut up and sit down. When they die, it’s from the side effects of hypoxia and oedema, not from strangely melty harnesses or exploding backpacks. Looking at you, Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit.
Yes, that means it’s harder to eat popcorn in the movie. Watching people slip into hyperthermia and delusion isn’t as much fun as watching cartoonish caricatures having a needle fight in a crevasse. But it makes the film much more real.
I wonder whether part of the overseas reviewers’ problem was that the protagonist talks like a very New Zealand hero. Understated. Sincere. Soft. Rob Hall projected the image of a rock on the mountain by just being one, not by screaming “I’m a rock on this here mountain!” I think that might be behind The Guardian’s tone-deaf complaint of “there’s no compelling story.”
For the third act of Everest I sat semi-fetal, my mouth hidden behind my arm. I knew what was coming, but I wasn’t prepared for it. I was on a boys’ night out, yet I cried when Rob and Jan talked for the last time.
That’s how it should be. That’s a compelling story. A movie about real people’s tragic deaths should be a time for introspection and emotion. It should be awful to watch. That it was is a feature, not a bug.
Last, the most frequent faux-critique of Everest was that there was no message in it. There was nothing to learn. Whose fault was Everest ‘96? Why do people climb mountains anyway?
The film’s answers to those questions were respectively “dunno” and “piss off.” I reckon they’re appropriate.
There’s so much nobody really knows about what happened on Everest on 10 May 1996. We know one half-remembered side of some crucial conversations, and neither side of others. We can infer a little about some people’s competing motives, but very little about how they dealt with them. With all that lack of knowledge, it’s not really cool as a screenwriter to go round assigning blame to real people for the deaths of other real people. Their families are watching, too.
And the “why climb” trope has been done over and over again. (Best answer, by the way: JFK) Does every race car movie have to ask “why speed?” Does every space movie ask “why bother?” No.
Moves about mountains can cover things other than moralizing about mountains. Touching the Void was about stamina and partnership. Everest is about tragedy and the light and shade of human nature, and it does a stupendous job.
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I must go and see this film. I'm not a climber, but I went to school with Jan Arnold and was great friends with her brother Peter. I thought about her a lot when it all went down.
One nice thing is that lots of the family made to the US (where Peter and his family live) for the premiere.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report
Ugh. Vertical Limit brings back uncomfortable memories of a blind date during which I couldn't stop giggling because it was so mind-numbingly absurd. I didn't hear back.
I first learned about Gary Ball and Rob Hall thanks to their writings for School Journal, and despite being relatively young it really registed when I heard of their respective deaths. I wasn't sure if I wanted to see this film (I don't see many films lately), but I'm starting to have second thoughts after some of the attention it's received.
On the topic, one other work I'm eyeing up is Lydia Bradey's (auto)biography Going Up Is Easy. She was the first woman to summit Everest without supplementary oxygen, and the only New Zealander ever to do so. To top it off she did it solo, but had a very hard time of things immediately afterwards. Partly because she returned to find a couple of good friends had died elsewhere on the mountain, and then because many people didn't believe she'd pulled it off, and she was pressured into renouncing the claim for a time. (For complex reasons, Ball and Hall further muddied the issue in media.)
Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1142 posts Report
I read 'into thin air' a few years back, and for all the criticism that's been levelled at it, I thought it did an exceptionally good job of getting the issues and problems over to a lay audience.
That's far easier to do in a text format. I haven't seen the film, so I'll tread cautiously, but given the criticisms you've outlined, I wonder if it fails slightly in that respect: those that know (like yourself) will pick up on things that will fly straight over the heads of those that don't.
back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report
From what you am saying Rob, it seems only mountaineers (or perhaps New Zealanders) will enjoy it. But just because a thing happened doesn't mean its interesting.
Here's a link illustrating this point by means of the complete destruction of Nicholas Cage. Satisfying.
Auckland • Since Mar 2008 • 410 posts Report
Eh, it's a choice but I'm not sure it's an appropriate one. When you're billing your movie as a true story in which, you know, people died you can acknowledge "it's complicated and there's much that's unknowable until seances become a real thing" without saying it doesn't matter.
North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report
@Rich: Certainly people with some pre-knowledge do better out of specialist films. That’s always true. But for my 2c I reckon there’s something in here for anyone who cares likes everyman heroes and/or is a sucker for a well-told tragedy. I’d hate it if every movie had to have the “hollywood ending.” Some good stories are sad ones, too.
@James: I agree that it’s not a movie for absolutely everyone. Very few movies are. But that alone doesn’t make it a bad film, as some of the reviewers are appearing to suggest. I don't see them panning arthouse projects or political biopics because they require a bit of pre-knowledge to fully get. I reckon the issue here is movies (not just this one) sometimes get short-shrift when they’re outside the reviewers’ comfort zone. The best reviewers can see past their own personal biases.
@Craig: I don't think the movie ever suggested it didn’t matter whose fault the 1996 disaster was. The screenwriter just didn’t know. Big difference.
Wellington • Since Jun 2015 • 102 posts Report
I like Hemingway: There are only two sports worth talking about. Boxing and mountain climbing.
Auckland • Since Mar 2008 • 410 posts Report
Saw the film last night - thought it was a good but not a great movie. It seemed pretty faithful to Into Thin Air but lacked something (I'm not quite sure what) to make it really compelling. It didn't get me really emotionally involved - i.e, - I remained dry-eyed during the phone calls between Rob and his wife - which seemed specifically intended to wring tears out of the audience. Saw it at a cineplex in Indonesia and was surprised at the fairly large turnout (American superhero movies and schlocky horrors are big here). I suspect many in the audience thought they were going to get a more traditional alpine disaster style film.
Jakarta, Indonesia • Since Jun 2014 • 8 posts Report
izogi, in reply to
At about 22m into the 38 minute interview with Kathryn Ryan a week ago, Jan Arnold more or less said that there’s no way she’d have said some of the things she was portrayed to have said, and during the actual event (20:20) "knew straight away that it was extraordinarily unlikely that he’d be able to be rescued or make it down".
She also thought that Scott Fischer’s portrayal was somewhat unfair, based on how she knew him.
In context though, she sounded generally content with the accuracy apart from those things.
Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1142 posts Report
Authenticity alone does not make a movie great. If it did, the James Bond franchise would have been stillborn. Conversely, of course, the lack of authenticity does not make a movie bad, though I have a lot of trouble liking movies in which journos who take no notes for weeks write front-page leads in three minutes and write (in big letters) their own (really crap) headings, like "Scandal Exposed".Think Russell Crowe in State of Play. For the record, I thought Everest, which I did not review, a good movie, but far from a great one. But the fact that mountaineers use "summit" as an intransitive verb does not make the use of the word in a movie script a good idea: Scientists use polysyllables of Greek origin all day long. You never heard a doctor in a movie ponder issues of the relative bio-availability of different generic drugs, but real doctors do all the time.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 66 posts Report
I finally saw Everest last week, really enjoyed it. I was able to draw conclusions about where things went wrong for the deaths that were portrayed - Hall and the climber he was with clearly shouldn't have continued to the top, Fisher was unwell and exhausted and never should have attempted the summit. They weren't shoved in your face however.
It also portrayed well some of the issues with the mountain - the professional climbing expeditions that were bringing in more climbers, the lack of control over what happens there, and the horrendous environment up there.
Was surprised that they'd cast so high for Rob Hall's wife. It was a very minor role for Knightley.
How anyone could struggle with 'summit' as a verb I have no idea. I'm amazed that it stuck out to anyone watching the film as weird.
Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report