Mountaineering--especially on the world's fourteen peaks over 8000 meters--has fascinated me for a while now. For documentation, see chapter 32 of my novel. Though the insane risks involved firmly relegate me to armchair enthusiast status, I usually welcome the chance to get some vicarious thrills through other people's foolhardiness.
Everest, the new film by Baltasar Kormakur, is a dramatized account of the 1996 disaster in which eight climbers lost their lives on the mountain. Based on numerous firsthand sources, including the popular book Into Thin Air by journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer (himself a survivor of the tragedy), the film has nevertheless drawn criticism for misrepresenting, and even fabricating, certain events.
By now, I hope we've all learned to take the movie tagline "based on a true story" with a heaping spoonful of salt. But for all of its fictionalized conceits--especially the author's refusal to help Anatoli Boukreev search for stranded climbers; a conversation which Krakauer insists never took place--Everest manages to get most of the basic facts right.
The film's clear protagonist is legendary guide Rob Hall, co-founder of Adventure Consultants, the New Zealand firm that still offers guided expeditions to some of the most beautiful and dangerous places on earth. The movie follows Hall's expedition to Mount Everest in April-May of 1996. His clients include Krakauer (whose reporting services he wrested from rival guide Scott Fischer), ordinary guy chasing an impossible dream Doug Hansen, irascible Texan Beck Weathers, and veteran Japanese climber Yasuko Namba.
Hall knows that there's only two weeks of optimal climbing weather on Everest each year. Unfortunately, so do several other teams, and they all show up at the same time. Hall and Fischer join forces to relieve the logjam, but a sudden, fierce blizzard throws a huge wrench in their plans and throws all of the climbers into mortal danger.
On the whole, I liked this movie. It's beautifully shot, having been largely filmed in actual winter conditions; not just a sound stage. The performances are solid all around and establish sympathy for the characters. The action is grueling, providing a refreshingly unglamorous look at mountain climbing.
Besides the aforementioned liberties the film takes with the truth, a couple of things bugged me. First, it was hard to tell certain characters apart during some key scenes. But since most of those scenes occurred in low-visibility blizzard conditions, what're you gonna do?
Second, I know this is a Hollywood film; so they needed to impose a plot structure on real-life events, which required a protagonist. If any real person could be an adventure movie hero, it's Rob Hall, but the script goes to such lengths to make movie Rob Hall sympathetic that it verges on hagiography.
Everything I've read about Hall leads me to conclude that he was a consummate pro, a loving husband, and an all-around great guy. This criticism is directed solely at the writers' handling of movie Rob Hall, who is shown picking up litter at base camp, giving down-on-their-luck clients deep discounts he can't afford, and picking up the tab when another client makes an anniversary satellite phone call to his wife at $25.00 a minute.
I'm prepared to concede that actual Rob Hall did all of those things. What the film glosses over is movie Rob Hall's decision to a) break his own ironclad descent deadline in order to help a clearly hypoxic client to the summit and b) go somewhere that he admits is incompatible with life while his pregnant wife waits at home.
Note to screenwriters: you don't have to put your protagonists on pedestals. Real life confronts people with complex judgment calls, and we can still like them even if they don't always make the right choices.
On the positive side, Everest pleasantly foiled my expectations of movie Beck Weathers turning out to be some kind of villain. His Dole '96 tee shirt and a tirade wherein he invokes Wal-Mart raised some "punching bag deployed to vent Hollywood's fear and hatred of flyover country" red flags. But thankfully, real life events made it impossible to warp this character into an unsympathetic mustache-twirler.
Red Letter Media's review nicely sums up my opinion of Everest, with far better production values than mine. I recommend both the movie and their review.