Friday, October 02, 2015

Everest / *** (PG-13)

Rob Hall: Jason Clarke
Beck Weathers: Josh Brolin
Scott Fischer: Jake Gyllenhaal
Jon Krakauer: Michael Kelly
Doug Hansen: John Hawkes
Helen Wilton: Emily Watson
Jan Arnold: Keira Knightley
Guy Cotter: Sam Worthington
Peach Weathers: Robin Wright
Caroline Mackenzie: Elizabeth Debicki
Andy ‘Harold’ Harris: Martin Henderson
Michael Groom: Thomas M. Wright
Yasuko Namba: Naoko Mori

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy. Running time: 121 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense peril and disturbing images).

There is a scene in the new mountaineering movie “Everest” when journalist Jon Krakauer asks two amateur climbers who have hired a guide to take them to the summit of Mt. Everest why they feel the need to climb such a mountain, one that has taken the lives of many professional climbers. They struggle to articulate their need to pursue a goal that they admit is filled mostly with pain. I might also struggle to articulate my own fascination with mountain climbing disaster pictures. I suppose watching an expedition/adventure that is bound to go bad is connected to our inability to turn away when witnessing the aftermath of a car accident. Our human need to empathize and understand what went wrong overrides any need we might have to keep a rosy outlook on the world. We need to examine adversity and tragedy as a mechanism to develop our own ability to deal with the inevitable reality of it in our own lives.

“Everest” tells the story of the doomed 1996 expedition led by Adventure Consultants professional guide Rob Hall that ended with twelve of its members dead after a surprise storm stranded most of the expedition on the mountain. The fact is you don’t make a mountain climbing movie if everybody gets back safe and sound. What happened in May of 1996, however, was remarkably tragic considering how the guided expeditions on Everest were able to usher in an era in which few people died attempting to scale the mountain with a reputation for taking lives.

Krakuaer found great success with his own account of the events of that expedition in his book “Into Thin Air”. Krakauer has expressed his disappointment with the film’s depiction of the events since its release. The film was not based on his book, but on other sources, including many of the actual communication transcripts between the guides and their base camps. Krakauer’s complaints might speak to some of the inherent problems in depicting any sort of account of an Everest expedition on film.

The film follows a large amount of characters. The screenplay does its best to flesh out some of these characters, and does surprisingly well with some of its key players. Expedition leader, Rob Hall, is the most well rounded character of the bunch, given a wonderful grounding in humanity by actor Jason Clarke. We learn of Hall’s wife, Jan Arnold, another professional climber home for this round pregnant with their first child. Hall expresses concerns with his fellow guides about how many people are on the mountain, creating traffic jams which could result in a reduction of safety for the clients.

We meet the leader of another guide company, Scott Fischer. As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Fischer has a more laid back approach to the experience than Hall. That doesn’t make him less professional or less invested in the safety of their clients, however. After Hall’s concerns are ignored by some of the other expeditions, Fischer agrees to band their tours together, combining resources and coordinating their accents to each other’s benefit.

The final major character is Beck Weathers, a Texan played by Josh Brolin. I suppose his Texan accent kept bringing Brolin’s phenomenal performance to my mind of George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s odd biopic “W.” Beck is a simpler character than our 43rd President. At first he’s a bad caricature of an American, but eventually Brolin is allowed to fill in some depth to the man whose fate might not be believed if it weren’t true.

The rest of the cast is never really given as much to work with in William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay as these three, and much of their depth is brought through in the performances alone. Michael Kelly plays Krakauer, whose presence is more of a plot point than a look into his character. The fact that a journalist is on the expedition raises the stakes for a successful summit. Mailman Doug Hansen is making his third attempt to summit. John Hawkes is well cast to bring a great deal of empathy for this amateur, who will probably never get another chance at reaching his dream. The female actors also deserve a great deal of praise for their emotional performances. Keira Knightley plays Arnold, Robin Wright is Beck’s wife Peach, and Emily Watson plays Adventure Consultants expedition coordinator Helen Wilton. All of them bring much more to their roles than they are given in the script.

Director Baltasar Kormákur’s choice to depict existence on Everest as it is may also be at fault in the development of some of the supporting characters who must handle many conversations with the wind blowing heavily and the weather generally getting in the way of any emotional depth. This playing it as it was is also a strength of the film. Kormákur’s matter-of-fact approach does away with any unnecessary histrionics most of these survival types of movies bring about. When something happens, it does so without the fanfare of melodrama, leaving the viewer more in the moment of these people’s lives. There is no pretense of hope where it doesn’t belong and no dashing heroics. These are real people rather than superheroes. When they reach their limits, there is nothing left in the reserves.

There is a great deal of location filming during the first half of the movie, giving the audience a sense of the grandeur of the mountain that must draw so many there. By necessity most of the climbing sequences are filmed on sets and soundstages. Unfortunately, the production budget could’ve used a bit more in the CGI department as some of the lines were visible during the green screen sequences. Much of the set sequences were forgivable as they involved locations that had to be recreated, like the summit. There is an exciting helicopter rescue sequence that helps to explain much of the filming restrictions put on the crew.

Despite the production limitations, which were mostly due to the very subject matter of the film, “Everest” remains a terse and intriguing story from start to finish. The fact that the filmmakers don’t over-sensationalize their story with melodrama and heroics allows the audience to connect with the reality of these true events in a more immediate manner. The film’s shortcomings are made up for with a few key performances. It stands as a useful tribute to the men and woman who perished on that expedition and explains well how a certain set of circumstances can send what had been a good thing into tragedy.

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