This review contains spoilers for the 2015 film “Everest,” and for real life.
If you’ve read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” even once (or about four times, in my case) you might come into “Everest” knowing exactly who will die, and who will make it home. Neither the actors’ fame nor their prominence in the film will give you a clue. If you wish to remain ignorant, best read no farther.
It’s a simple story of (mostly) men, mountains, and mistakes. Kiwi Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) has pioneered guided climbs of Everest with his Adventure Consultants. Clients may pay him $60,000 to get them up the mountain. Hall is a warm, friendly fellow, and a gifted climber, but he is also the sign of the competitive times on Everest.
In 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited, a whole team was devoted to getting someone to the top. In 1996 (to say nothing of 2015), everyone wants his individualized glory. However, the weather in the death zone—above 26,000 feet—can easily get in the way. It did on May 10, 1996, when climbers from multiple expeditions were caught out in the open during a violent storm.
Meet the Cast of Characters
One of Hall’s clients is author Jon Krakauer, played coldly by Michael Kelly from “House of Cards.” Krakauer generally lurks in the background, except when he asks the group why they’re there (George Mallory already answered). More interesting is Josh Brolin as Texas pathologist Beck Weathers, who first appears on screen in a Dole/Kemp ‘96 shirt. The actual Weathers told The Los Angeles Times in March he thinks Brolin plays him as more of a jerk than he was, but his wife agrees with the movie version of her husband. (Weathers also cheerfully accepts that it’s “almost impossible for a Hollywood screenwriter faced with a conservative Texan to not engage in a little bit of enjoyment in creating that character.”)
Another character who feels archetypical is rival Mountain Madness guide Scott Fischer, frenemy of Hall, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal is a great actor, but the aggressively chill Fischer is a thankless part.
The number of clients, guides, and Sherpas in Fischer and Hall’s groups are hard to keep track of, even for someone who has read the Krakauer book. The notable include Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), the Russian guide under Fischer whom Krakauer controversially criticized in “Into Thin Air.” Under Hall, we have guides Mike Groom (Thomas M. Wright) and fellow Kiwi Andy “Harold” Harris (Martin Henderson). Clients include Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a weedy man from Seattle who works three jobs and whom Hall turned around a few hundred feet from the summit the year before.
There are a few women, but besides Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), they tend to stay at the lower altitudes if they have dialogue. Peach Weathers (Robin Wright) is nearly estranged from her husband and waits at home in Texas with the children. Hall’s pregnant wife, Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley), always waits and worries, but presumably understands the appeal of mountains better (the real Arnold climbed Everest in 1993). Rounding things out is basecamp manager Helen (Emily Watson) and doctor Caroline (Elizabeth Debicki), who are a bit of an audience proxy in that they can only react in horror and grief over to the radio to the unfolding disaster.
A Magnifier for Human Error
A vital part of climbing so high safely is having an early turnaround time. The good weather window for climbing to 29,028 feet is miniscule, and you need time to get back to camp. Aggregating the situation in “Everest,” the mountain is too crowded, the fixed ropes are not put up in time, and a radio or two malfunctions.
“Into Thin Air” hammers this point home: the summit is only the halfway point. Part of the drama of Hansen in “Everest,” and sadly in real life, is that he cannot rest with having “nearly climbed Everest.” So he is back.
Hall, more dangerously, cannot bring himself to be the bad guy again by turning Hansen back. The fact that Fischer gets all of his clients to the top—and Hall has several people, including Weathers, drop out in the presence of reporter Krakauker—is hinted at as an additional explanation for Hall’s reckless behavior. (Fischer mostly just endangered himself.)
Hall as a character isn’t entirely let off the hook for his mistakes in the film, but we don’t see “Into Thin Air’s” description of him talking Hansen into not giving up on the climb. Krakauer was criticized for his portrayal of the guides. But though he has inherent bias and error, Krakauer appears to be an empathic, fair, human reporter. Here, Kelly’s chilly acting job and the squabble between Fischer and Hall (later resolved in a very human, non-Hollywood fashion) over who got the reporter makes Krakauer something of a villain.
A Restrained Take on the Events
Krakauer wrote that he asked Beck Weathers, who had eye trouble and was waiting in the snow to see if it would go away, if he needed help getting down the mountain (then is secretly relieved when Weathers says no, he’ll wait). In “Everest,” Krakauer actively tells Weathers to go with the other climbers who are coming up behind him, which dooms Weathers to his fate of 15 hours of catatonia and frostbite so severe he had his nose, half an arm, and four fingers amputated.
Krakauer is also shown saying “I don’t want to die” when the surviving climbers who weren’t caught in the storm discuss the risks of trying to save Weathers. Krakauer doesn’t appear to have addressed specifics, but he did tell the LA Times that “Everest” is “total bull.” This is excessive, but it’s hard to blame Krakauer for being annoyed by his oddly harsh portrayal.
However, Krakauer’s book is the best-known look at the events of 1996. He was the main character in the clunky, but accurate 1998 TV movie called “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest.” Perhaps, then, director Baltasar Kormákur isn’t working out some angry, anti-reporter fantasy, but is trying to differentiate his film from a previous representation of the tragedy, much like James Cameron’s “Titanic” has real-life characters—mainly British crew—who seem reactionary compared to their counterparts in 1958s “A Night to Remember.”
Strangely, “Everest” almost has the opposite problem of most supposed true stories. It could engage in the drama of the events more than it is willing to. It’s hard not to attribute some of the directing restraint to the fact that Kormákur isn’t an American. He’s Icelandic. If this were an American movie, there would be more sentimentality and more about the spiritual need for men to climb mountains. It would, perhaps, be more like “Into The Wild,” Sean Penn’s adaptation of Krakauer’s previous nonfiction work. It would not end with a lonely shot of Rob Hall’s snow-covered body.
Life and Death on Mount Everest
In fiction, either Hall or Fischer would survive. Fischer would at least earn a more poignant end. Instead, he is played by the biggest-name actor, yet gets only ignoble collapse and death. There is nothing uplifting about the demise of this goofy hippie character (nor is there any sign of the amazingly tough climber Krakauer describes).
Hall gets his dramatic death. He even gets to say goodbye to his wife. This is the heart of the film, but it is strange for any viewer who feels as if he has already almost seen this. Legendary climber David Breashears was working on an IMAX film during the events of the tragedy in 1996, and in fact risked the $7 million movie to help the imperiled climbers, particularly Weathers. At one point in the documentary, the real Hall’s hypothermia-ravaged, slurred voice can be heard over the radio. Clarke and Knightley do a splendid job breaking the audience’s heart in this fictional version—especially Clarke, who is the stand-out actor—but it’s an echo of the stomach-clenching sound of a real man near death.
In some ways, Hall was lucky. He hung on long enough that he and Arnold could discuss the name for the baby growing in her stomach. They settled on Sarah. And though Kormákur refuses to pull punches with his ending, you could consider his final say to be the footage of the real Sarah Arnold-Hall smiling and walking towards the camera after photo tributes of each dead climber.
That is our redeeming moment. Not that this wasn’t a needless disaster, but that somewhere this child is now a woman in the world. There’s a reason the overly fictional Cameron “Titanic” had to have a woman’s slightly anachronistic self-actualization as a plot. Otherwise, you just have a brave band, and then a bunch of people dying of cold because of hubris about lifeboats. Hollywood generally craves a spoonful of fiction to help miserable reality go down.
Missing a Real-Life Portrayal of Hope
Strangely, Kormákur doesn’t appear interested in the aspect of May 10, 1996, that is most uplifting. Weathers’ resurrection after hallucinating his family in front of him, and his slog back to camp after nearly 15 hours unconscious, is pure, inspirational drama. So is the moment where the daredevil Nepalese pilot lands a helicopter at 20,000 feet in the dangerously thin air to rescue not just Weathers, but another dangerously frostbitten climber. Kormákur includes all this (although not the pilot returning for Weathers a second time) but his restraint becomes a little prosaic.
The sound of the ice cracking from the inside as Weathers slowly gets up from where he was left for dead is skin-crawling. Krakauer writes that this mummy figure with his hand in a sort of “frozen salute” appeared suddenly in camp. The audience should see that exactly as described, and should see Weathers left to presumably die in his tent alone the night after his rescue, because everyone assumed he was a hopeless case. They don’t.
Weathers doesn’t need to wake to a chorus of violins on the soundtrack. This isn’t that movie, thankfully. But Weathers’ bizarre survival is the story that taught me at ten years old that reality can be as enthralling as a storybook. I have a strange attachment, then, to Weathers, the man who has always said the trip was worth it because he traded his hands for his family. But something is missing in how it plays out on screen.
Near the end, we see Peach Weathers surrounded by friends and family phoning embassies—and, weirdly in real life, Democrat Rep. Tom Daschle and GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who helped—demanding a helicopter rescue for her husband. But when Peach and Beck are reunited, the movie doesn’t bother to ground the moment. Brolin looks like hell—though he oddly looks a lot better than the real Beck did—and the reunited couple’s embrace should be sweet, but it’s unclear if they’re in Kathmandu or Texas, or somewhere else. This careless ending is atrocious, after a beautiful, frightening middle of a film.
In spite of these frustrations and Krakauer’s legitimate annoyance, “Everest” is mostly a success. The scenery is stunning and tangible (though avoid 3D). The acting ranges from good to great. The tone is serious and intense, but never overwrought. Unfortunately, Kormákur hits nearly all the marks of the real story, but he doesn’t seem to know he should let a powerful moment like Weathers shambling back into camp linger for a few more beats.