It was one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of human events: Two men branching off a larger expedition, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, climbed to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953. If it seems commonplace today, it should be noted that for their conquest of the highest peak in the world, both Hillary and Norgay were named to the 100 most influential people of the 20th century list published by Time. Of course, it should seem commonplace today. One of the many mountaineering and adventure companies, Alpine Ascents International, claims on its website that 80 percent of its clients reach the top of the mountain. So Everest has been tamed, right? Maybe not. Last year, you’ll recall, an icefall collapse killed more than a dozen people: one of the worst disasters in the mountain’s history. That reminder is part of what makes Everest so compelling.
In the early days of commercialized climbs of Mt. Everest, writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) was commissioned to write an article about the burgeoning industry and overpopulated base camps. He was part of a climb led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the New Zealander who made this kind of public mountaineering popular back in the 1990s. Other civilians on the trip included postal worker Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin).
The mountain is crowded. There are multiple teams all targeting summit dates in early May, which is generally the first available window after the winter. One of the other teams is under the direction of Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a less entrepreneurial approach to the business of adventuring, but takes the climbs no less seriously.
This can’t all go according to plan, of course, or why make the movie? As Hall tells his compatriots of a clear weather forecast at one point, “This mountain makes its own weather.” It’s no spoiler to say that not everyone who has gone up Mt. Everest has come down. If they haven’t, they’re still up there, an effort in symbolism both honoring the adventurer and the peak. So Everest becomes a race against time and the elements. Even without blizzards and avalanches, you can’t exactly walk straight up to 30,000 feet. We’re not made to hang out six miles up. On its own, the thin air is enough to kill you.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur does a great job making the mountain a pivotal character and not just scenery. Where the film struggles is with the other characters: there are just too many of them. In the interest of historical accuracy, of course, that’s understandable. But there are only so many lines of dialogue and motivations you can fit into two hours. Everest has a number of teams on the mountain, crews at base camp who are largely there for exposition—“The storm is coming back again!”—and Rob Hall’s pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), anxiously awaiting any word from her husband. It’s just a lot.
Having said that, Brolin and Gyllenhaal are very good. Clarke, who has flown under the radar with supporting roles in Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby, shows he can carry a dramatic storyline. The action here looks incredibly realistic, too. The bulk of the footage was shot on location in Nepal, with Val Senales in Italy serving as an able substitute. You may find yourself a little snowblind—the film could use a change of scenery more often just to mitigate all the white noise, as it were—but that is kind of what you’re signing up for.
All in all, Everest is a good document of human achievement and endurance, but it’s even more notable for the monster it creates out of a mountain. ■