EVEREST – Superb Portrayal of a Tragedy of Errors ***

Everest is the latest film to feature the world’s most prodigious mountain and mankind’s continuing efforts to conquer it.  Based on the true accounts of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and writings and interviews of other participants, this Everest film centers itself on the 1996 climbing season of the mountain (a narrow window of a few weeks in May when weather on the mountain is traditionally the least inclement), one in which a “perfect storm” of human arrogance, error, and nature’s unexpected fury came together with epic results.

The film begins with a brief synopsis of the history of men on the mountain, noting that it was first conquered by Englishman Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tensing Norgay back in 1954, and in the subsequent 40 years before this story begins, had only been assaulted by a few thousand professional climbers, 25% of whom had died in the attempt.  But in 1991, a company called Adventure Consultants, headed by climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of New Zealand, had devised a way to “safely” guide amateur climbers up the mighty slopes–for a price, of course–and since then numerous other companies led by other professional climbers and been formed.

Consequently, the story really kicks into gear with an ironic scene that Hillary and Norgay would have found laughably insane had they been around to see it–over a dozen professional mountaineers, each leading groups of essentially tourist climbers (one including an IMAX film crew, another a noted outdoor journalist), discussing the ominous (or perhaps ludicrous?) possibility of a traffic jam of people developing as the various groups attempt their final ascents of the mountain.  Compromises are eventually worked out, with two of the largest groups, Hall’s Adventure Consultants and daredevil climber Scott Fisher’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness, agreeing to work together and pool their resources.

Meanwhile, journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly) sits amongst the “climbers” trying to get a feel for just why each one would literally risk their lives on what is, essentially, a very self-absorbed adventure.  After all, no one’s making them do it, and, as Hall had ominously warned, “human life was not meant to survive at the cruising altitude of a 747 airliner” while describing the mountain’s infamous Death Zone (the last 2000 feet of the climb).  A Japanese woman (Naoko Mori) wants to be the oldest woman to climb the highest peaks on every continent (“the Seven”).  Doug (John Hawkes), who’s failed on two other attempts, wants to show schoolchildren back home that “if an ordinary guy like me can reach the top of the world, they should be able to accomplish anything if they work hard and don’t quit.”  And veteran climber Buck (Josh Brolin) just wants to “feel alive” again compared to how he feels in his normal life back home, where his wife has threatened to divorce him if he climbs another mountain.  It’s evident that none of these folks, despite their brave words and noble (or not so noble) intentions, really has any idea what they’re getting themselves into.

But onward they go, through “practice runs” that take them up to various camps and back to the over-populated base camp, ending in the final assault which will go all the way to the 29,002 ft. summit.  It’s on that ascent that things for Hall’s and Fisher’s parties begin to go awry.  Like rusty joints beginning to give way on an old bridge, one error leads to another slip-up and to another mistake, amateur climbers begin to whither as they face perils that even professionals struggle to conquer, guides who want desperately for their clients to reach their dreams must make life-and-death decisions, and then Mother Nature throws in a curve ball that sends the whole, delicately-balanced structure crumbling to ruins, with predictable results.  The action is tense, the drama even more so, and all is brilliantly filmed with a jaw-dropping reality that should be remembered in Oscar’s more technical awards categories.  Performances by the all-star ensemble cast are uniformly brilliant, with special kudos to Clarke (Terminator Genysis), who’s portrayal of Hall is simply gut-wrenching.

While some might call Everest one of those “triumph of the human spirit” films that such stories usually are lumped into, I would call it, perhaps, a step beyond that, a sort of post-human triumph film; one in which the human spirit arrogantly drives a person just a few steps too far, its myth of invincibility clouds the person’s reason, and all too suddenly, reality sets in, and like Icarus with his wax wings, the person realizes what he or she really is; frail, faulted, hopelessly in over their head, and ultimately clinging to whatever might be of comfort as they drift into oblivion.  And of course that kind of film has its own moniker–the “disaster film.”

You can make your own judgement about Everest when you see it.