On the Mountain of Madness

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There is a very fascinating radio interview with David Breashears, the filmmaker whose IMAX team was up on Everest during the 1996 disaster, and the transcript of the interview can be found here.

Over the years since the tragedy, many people have written books of their own accounts, most famously journalist Jon Krakauer whose bestselling Into Thin Air is perhaps the most riveting and most widely read. For every tragedy like this one, there is no shortage of finger-pointing and conflicting reminiscences. The end result is almost always that no one can really know the truth of what happened. I, myself, interviewed double-amputee climber Mark Inglis whose Everest ascent took place during the highly controversial 2006 season, when 11 climbers died. And when pressed for confirmation of certain accounts of that tragedy, Inglis admitted he couldn’t remember clearly, and suggested that the altitude does that to a person’s mind. You can read my interview here.

Breashears said in the abovementioned radio interview:

And we did meet some of the survivors coming down the slopes of that mountain a couple of days later, but many of my opinions about that year, actually, and many of the public’s opinions about that year were formed by what they read. And the media was very quick to assign blame and to assign roles to people on that mountain, either villain or hero, knowing nothing about them at all. And in a small way, I was a part of that myself.

It’s an interesting point to note, especially when talking about movie adaptations of true events. People tend to accept a movie adaptation as the definitive version of a true event, possibly because film is visual. In reality, a feature film is probably the least reliable account because of the endless possibilities of truths afforded by editing and montage.

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Everest comes across as a combination of a serious based-on-a-true-event film and a commercial Irwin Allen-type disaster movie. Like some have noted, the film can be split into two distinct parts. The first half contains the usual disaster-movie tropes, introducing the various characters and their quirks, getting us to connect emotionally with them. There is the head of the team with a pregnant wife back home, a climber whose probably-final attempt at the peak is to plant a flag on the summit for his students. And then there are the various conflicts between the different commercial entities vying for a successful summit for their clients.

This is the moment when you think you’ve seen it all, when you let your guard down thinking you know what’s going to come next – probably some suspenseful moments when the climbers face the worst dangers, then a sentimental denouement with a lot of tears freely flowing complete with sad music.

This is also the preparatory moment that, almost staying true to the movie’s tagline, least prepares you for anything.

Because when the freak storm that turned those two days into what was then the worst disaster on Everest hits, the maelstrom completely draws you in. This is also due to the fact that the film had shown you prior to the storm just how arduous climbing Everest is, unlike other movies where it would seem you only suffer from shortness of breath in the thin air. The reality is, it’s much worse. You can get really sick, you can lose your bearings easily, you can hallucinate badly. In the chaos of the storm, you believe just how bad those climbers are suffering. (A scientist studying that freak storm found that it could have lowered the oxygen by as much as 14%.)

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What makes Everest work so well is that it doesn’t try to wow you with the special effects or the CGI. In fact, the technical effects are kept mostly backgrounded and necessary. I can’t help but imagine how the second half of the film would play out in the hands of a lesser director like, say, Michael Bay or Zack Snyder. You might have people falling off the mountain in stylish slo-mo, or fancy, showy camera moves going at impossible angles, stuff that would take you completely out of the movie.

Director Baltasar Komákur keeps it all real and serious, and wisely focuses on the people, not the mountain or the storm. It’s all very classical Hollywood dramatic cinema, very old school, without any shaky cam or fast cuts. And that’s exactly why the film is so effective. Classical Hollywood, no matter what the subject or theme or genre of a film, was always about the characters, but somewhere along the advent of CGI, effects took over centrestage and the art of good storytelling was lost. Komákur and Everest seem to have brought it all back down to solid ground.

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Of course, then it brings us back to the dilemma of adapting a true story to film. In the case of such a complicated and oft-disputed incident like the 1996 Everest disaster, you have no choice but to choose your heroes. Did Rob Hall, leader of the Adventure Consultants team really steal Jon Krakauer from Scott Fischer to get publicity for his business? Why did Anatoli Boukreev leave his clients behind on the mountain while he went down to High Camp to wait for them?

Actually does it all really matter for the film? For me, what’s worse is, say, a fictional film like The Deer Hunter that purports to display some truths but fails to address the real problem with the Vietnam War and even takes a racist stance. In comparison, whatever little failures in accuracy in Everest seem like minor misdemeanours. (Surprisingly, some of the more astonishing moments in the film turned out have really happened.)

With so many versions of the same incident being propagated out there, Everest is just another side of the story. Everest focuses on the people, triumphs and tragedies, and leaves the blame game to merely factual footnotes about how commercialism was the real cause of the disaster, creating a congestion on the mountain with too many climbers, ultimately causing everyone to summit and descend way past the safe window of time.

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All of it echoes the words of a veteran climber in the film who says that people shouldn’t be competing with each other on Everest, but they should only be competing with the mountain. And that is what Everest correctly makes itself out to be – a film about man against nature, and very little about man against man.

In the end, some won and some lost against the mountain. And for the film, the human story wins, with an ending that should have been overly sentimental, but instead, packs an emotional punch to the gut that is surprising because everything Everest should be in this mediocre age of Hollywood, it is not. Everything that should have gone wrong with the story of how everything did go wrong on the mountain, turned out right, because Everest rightly submits that people matter the most.

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One response to “On the Mountain of Madness

  1. Pingback: Everest: who really wins? | Step into film·

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