- Written by
- William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy
- Directed by
- Baltasar Kormakur
- Jason Clarke, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal
- U.K., USA, Iceland
There are those for whom Mount Everest has become a symbol of folly, its ascent an act of extreme hubris unnecessarily endangering human lives. And there are those for whom it's there.
Wisely, Everest is a movie that doesn't take sides. Indeed, if it weren't for the looming score and breathtaking mountain scenery (shot in 3-D, of course), this film might seem like an almost clinical approach to the infamous climbing season of 1996 during which eight climbers died in one day. Step by ominous step, it takes the sweaty-palmed viewer through the series of miscalculations, mishaps and misfortunes that stranded oxygen-deprived climbers in a snowstorm on the way down from the summit. There is not so much suspense here as there is very high anxiety.
Many people know the story from Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air, although this film is not affiliated with the book and there are several other (sometimes conflicting) first-person accounts of the events of May 10 and 11, 1996. The script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy prunes out details (and climbers) to focus on a few key figures in the team lead by Adventure Consultants and Rob Hall, the New Zealand guide who pioneered commercial climbing expeditions on Everest.
Sympathetically played by Jason Clarke, Hall is portrayed as a natural leader and expert climber dedicated to the safety of his clients, even at great risk to himself, but the film does not lionize him, making it clear that commercial climbing is the culprit in the disaster as much as weather: The narrow route to the summit was so crowded that day that climbers lost precious time at bottlenecks.
And, as rival guide Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) points out in one key exchange, Hall is hand-holding on Everest. His group includes clients who have limited experience with high altitude climbing and lack his physical stamina, but still have expectations – at $65,000 (U.S.) a head – that he will deliver the summit to them. Beck Weathers, the brash Texan who goes partially blind on the way up but proves surprisingly resilient in the end, typifies the problem: Josh Brolin plays him as the quintessential American tourist, determined that every locality should bend to his will and his wallet.
There's also Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), just an average American mailman who is working three jobs to pay for this trip – and who didn't quite make it to the top the previous year, adding extra pressure for Hall. Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is the one female climber, a surprisingly modest Japanese woman who has already notched up the other six of the world's top seven summits.
And then there is Krakauer himself (Michael Kelly), on assignment for an adventure magazine. He asks the why question early in the film and doesn't get many good answers.
Even if viewers don't remember the exact details, most will recall the expedition went badly: The first half of the film is excruciatingly tense with our foreknowledge. Director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino deliver the jaw-dropping mountain scenery and vertiginous overhead views, but there's little emotional space to enjoy the grandeur, especially as Dario Marianelli's overwrought score keeps intruding.
The music often seems out of sync with the otherwise restrained direction of the film: Kormakur keeps a powerful ensemble working as an admirably integrated whole. By the time things are going wrong in the second half, there are moments when it's hard to follow the thread of events as desperate climbers bellow at each other through driving snow, but the narrative line is crucially supported (as are the climbers themselves) by the folks back at base camp, where Emily Watson delivers a particularly solid performance as the highly efficient head of operations, Helen Wilton.
It's a star-studded film with little room for star turns or sentimentality, with the possible exception of Hall's satellite call home to his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley) – an actual occurrence that was always the most horribly sad detail of the disaster. There is no tragic hero here; there is no overarching explanation, but a movie that offered either of those would seem pretty pat. Take it or leave, Everest is just there.