Jon Krakauer hates the movie Everest. The author called the film – a fictional retelling of what was, until recently, the deadliest expedition up the world’s highest summit – “total bull.” Krakauer should know. He was there on May 11th, 1996 when eight people died on the side of Everest after they got trapped by a brutal ice and snow storm. The nature writer went on the expedition for Outside magazine, and in 1997 he turned his story into the bestselling memoir Into Thin Air. Krakauer said he was never consulted by anyone involved with this new film, and he takes specific umbrage with one scene depicting him as being unable to help search for one of the lost climbers. He claims no one ever came to his tent to ask for his help.
For his part, director Baltasar Kormákur claims that he and writers William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy had access to several books about the disaster and all of the radio communications of Adventure Consultants, the company leading the expedition. When crafting a dramatic interpretation of real-life events, artistic license is always a factor. The important thing to consider in determining if the ends justify the means of that license is intent. Kormákur says the writers added the scene with Krakauer to dramatize the sense of desperation everyone trapped on the mountain must have felt. He implies the changes he made were in service of the storytelling, and after seeing the film, it’s a convincing argument. Whether you agree or not, Everest is an amazing feat in filmmaking. Kormákur made a film that is compelling, gripping, and at times heart-stopping.
The film opens with introductions to the people who will be part of the fateful expedition at the center of Everest. We meet Texas doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), and writer Krakauer. The expedition leader, Rob Hall, hopes Krakauer’s story will cause a boom in business for Adventure Consultants, and we get to know the men as Hall conditions them for the climb. During his introductory scene, Hall (Jason Clarke) kisses his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), goodbye at the airport, and promises his return before their baby is born. Based on this one scene, the opportunity for Everest falling into cheap melodrama was high. Thankfully director Kormákur skillfully reigns in these moments, and they never overwhelm the movie. He includes moments you would expect to see, such as Jan curled up on the couch, phone in hand, waiting to hear news about Rob’s safety, but they are few and far between.
No, the real focus of Everest is the harrowing attempts by the climbers to make it back to base camp after a vicious storm slams into the mountain. Using a masterful mix of digital effects and location shooting, it’s hard to believe these actors weren’t actually caught in a real life-and-death struggle during shooting. The centerpiece of the film is the moment the storm hits. The movie effectively translates the horror of being caught on the side of a mountain at 29,000 feet as a massive tempest smashes into it. Everest prominently features the grandeur of the environment and the mountaineers’ extreme hardship.
The movie tackles what drives these men and women to do something so dangerous. Krakauer (played with quiet reserve by House of Cards’ Michael Kelly) asks the obligatory question of why they want to climb Everest, and he gets the standard answer – because it’s there. During the movie, the real answer is revealed, and it’s one that’s unique to each and every person climbing. Weathers can only keep the cloud that hangs over his head at bay when he’s on a climb. Hansen failed to summit Everest the year before, and he wants to show school children back home that anyone can achieve a dream with enough determination. There’s also Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who is climbing to become the second Japanese woman to conquer the famous Seven Summits.
The stunning images and breathtaking views cinematographer Salvatore Totino captured make it easy to see why someone would take on the challenge of Everest. What Totino produced with his camera truly inspires awe. Getting a first-hand glimpse of this beauty comes with plenty of peril, and Everest dramatizes the risks with tense action sequences that exhaust as much as they exhilarate. Whether it’s traversing bottomless crevasses using nothing more than aluminum ladders lashed together, or keeping death by asphyxiation at bay with oxygen tanks, the danger in Everest is palpable.
The movie only goes astray once. Robin Wright plays Peach, Beck Weathers’ long suffering wife, and she’s forced to participate in a disastrous effort at comic relief. When she’s notified that attempts are being made to rescue her husband, Peach calls her member of Congress for financial support. Her quip to the legislator, designed to get a big laugh, falls to the floor with a thud. Wright’s performance, specifically her Texas accent, is a disappointment, especially considering her strong showing as Clair Underwood in the series House of Cards.
Emily Watson as Helen Wilton, the base camp contact for the Adventure Consultants team, absolutely nails the impossible situation of her character, who can do nothing but provide radio support to the trapped climbers. Jake Gyllenhaal is also solid as Scott Fischer, an exhibition leader for a rival climbing company. When compared to his characterization of Robert Graysmith in the film Zodiac, Gyllenhaal looks and sounds like a completely different human being. It’s a great transformation, and Gyllenhaal does a lot with a small role.
Everest constructs a harrowing sense of suspense and danger that crackles on the screen. Every detail of what happened during that climb in 1996 may not be right, but the filmmakers’ choices create a verisimilitude that can’t be denied. Jon Krakauer has every right to fact check events he was involved in, as they are portrayed on screen. That doesn’t change the fact that Everest is one of the best films of the year.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- The cinematography is stunning.
- It’s a visceral experience that makes you feel like you are on the mountain.
- The drama of the loved ones back home is understated just the right amount.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I haven’t been this thrilled with the 3-D experience since Avatar kicked off the newest incarnation of the technology six years ago. The movie stands on its own merits, but the 3-D really added something special. I’m glad I saw it that way (I usually go with the 2-D version).
- My editor wanted to know if Everest wasted Keira Knightly’s talents, since what little screen time she has mainly consists of her sitting by the phone waiting for news. It does not. Knightly does a fine job with the limited role.
- The two and a half hour run time absolutely files by.
- Any readers who also happen to also be climbers: Always remember, CLIP IN!