Film Review – Everest
Everest is three-fourths guide through the unrelenting onslaught of nature and one-fourth regretting the tour. For all its breathtaking footage of the mountain in all its caprice and grandeur, you can’t shake the feeling that the thrill-seekers who traverse its walls and crags have paid thousands and thousands of dollars to try their luck at the high-stakes tables, willfully ignorant that the house always wins.
Few could say why they wanted to climb Everest. The postal worker, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), wants to show the kids back home that a regular guy could accomplish something great. Japanese mountaineer Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is forty-five and has already climbed six of the Seven Summits and Everest is her final challenge. The rest of the group that had assembled at the base of the world’s tallest mountain agreed on an answer: “Because it is there.” The teams include climbers from all over the world, of all ages and nationalities, who train to work together on a quest that will push their bodies to the brink of death and then back again. They are warned that at a certain altitude called the Death Zone, their bodies will literally begin to die, leaving a short window to reach the top and descend before it’s too late. No one hearing this is disheartened.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband, 2 Guns), the film’s ultimate conflict is not man versus nature (though it is majestically captured in both natural and stage settings by cinematographer Salvatore Totino), but business versus spirituality, as the two different interests collide under the watchful, vengeful eye of the mountain. The two expedition groups in the film are Adventure Consultants, led by New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Mountain Madness, led by American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). While Hall is steady, prepared, and cautious, Fischer is bold, tough, and impetuous. He chides Hall for “holding hands” with his group members, saying if they can’t handle the mountain they should not have come. While Hall wants his team to feel their money is well-spent, he insists “you pay me to bring you down safely,” and he leaves little room for chance or risk across the dangerous terrain. With journalists along for the trip, including one whom Fischer claims Hall stole from him, a successful ascent equals a more prominent article, weighing against each leader’s decisions.
As Hall’s group ascends higher during their forty days of training, they engage in spiritual reflection at Tengboche Monastery, where priests bless the climbers’ shawls, and pass the Climbers’ Memorials before arriving at Everest Base Camp. Strung along natural and manmade structures are prayer flags in five colors representing the elements of the earth, carrying blessings of peace, wisdom, and compassion through the wind. Throughout the journey, we see these blessings fall upon different group members, though often with unexpected outcomes.
Once everyone converges at the camp, shades of other survival films like The Abyss appear as competition veers from friendly to tense and climbers are warned to watch for health issues like hypoxia and edema, frostbite, and snow blindness. The expedition may be with a group, but the experience is a solitary struggle between man (or woman) and the mountain, “and the last word always belongs to the mountain.” Everest looms like a mildly amused deity over the scurrying ants who inch along the metal ladders that are strewn across fathomless crevasses or tenuously secured to a sheet of ice along one of its faces. In a display of omnipotence worthy of a Greek tragedy, it can send a blizzard as quickly as a silent, frozen dawn, and it challenges the humans who chose to face it with a series of trials that increase in peril as conditions cause the body to deceive the mind.
One can not ignore the role of the sherpas throughout the film, men for whom the mountain and its extreme tourist trade is their livelihood. The sherpas go in first and string the ropes, prepare the paths, and secure the ladders. They are the guides of the guides, enabling clients with means to trek up a sleeping giant and feel like masters of the universe for a few blessed minutes before descending back to civilization. Their dialogue with the mountain is more finely tuned than the visitors, acknowledging its whims and tics, and they can sense when to continue and when to turn around.
With so many characters on the mountain, at Camp, and back home, there never feels like enough emphasis is given to anyone but Rob, who left behind a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who relies on extreme adventures like this to alleviate his depression back home. The other climbers receive their fates with varying levels of attention. Beck represents the economic factors that unfortunately plague Rob’s lifeblood: he is a born climber and adventurer, but he must contend with weekend warriors and thrill jockeys in order to make a living doing what he loves. Though Rob and Scott are very different leaders, they see and respect Everest for what it is: Scott feels the mountain more in his heart, while Rob feels it in his soul. As the expedition turns tragic, we witness each person gleaning their own succor from the mountain, which can be as merciful as it can be cruel, and always with the last word.