Polity by Rob Salmond


“Everest”: Reviewing the reviews

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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