Directed by Balthasar Kormákur
Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Kiera Knightly, Emily Watson
Deep sunset hues and obliquely shaded surfaces and smooth, personal segues between characters with an authentically 90s aesthetic: the opening Airport scene of Everest heralds an uncommon realism for a star-studded disaster film. Shot mostly on location and guided by the meta-talented Balthasar Kormákur, the film serves as an unwitting example of a failure to capitalise on tonal perfection.
From his opening frame Jason Clarke smoothly glides into the skin of Rob Hall, the prolifically game mountaineer who managed 5 ascents to Everest’s 8,848m summit before his 36th birthday, which as the film emphasises, was never seen. As it did in the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Clarke’s talent for integrity-driven authority forms the film’s central fuselage, and for most of the 121 minute running-time presents so much narrative gravity that even the most dominating members of the ensemble (Brolin, Gyllenhaal) are reduced to orbits. Knowing the outcome of a true-to-life tragedy such as this, the focus on Hall’s character is clear indication of Kormákur’s desire to drive the emotions of his audience. He seems enchanted by the romanticism of the hero—characters so likeable and leader-like and lucid that one can’t help but admire them. Was Rob Hall really that charismatic? Maybe. I’d certainly like to think so. But in this Hollywood incarnation his charisma is being used mechanically for a less-than-honourable objective: to manipulate us into a false sense of narrative security, to the benefit of an emotionally-charged conclusion.
This isn’t an event film; it’s a parable-like melodrama. Consider United 93, Paul Greengrass’s masterly chronicle of the only failed terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, that killed all 44 people on board United Airlines Flight 93. A new bench-mark for dramatisation, he chose no-name actors and impartial attention to detail as vessels for emotional impact: the tragedy spoke for itself.
The problem with Everest isn’t just in the dichotomy between Clarke’s manipulative on-screen persona and Rob Hall’s actual fate (real-life heroes are exactly the kind of thing that brings people to theatres after all). The problem is that the real events of the 1996 disaster involved many heroes, and Kormákur only focuses on them when it serves to make the audience more emotional. Backed into a corner by Clarke’s dominating screen-presence and the pandering focus on him, Hall’s death causes the film to take a clunky shift in character focus, and ultimately reduces the finale to a fragmented mess.
There’s a lot of good here though. Aerial landscape shots of the mountain are spectacular, and some of the acting—especially Emily Watson and Kiera Knightley’s—is strikingly genuine and realistic. It’s a case of missed opportunity born of Hollywood ego. Rob Hall’s fate and that of his 7 courageous accomplices scream for artful restraint vis a vis Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void. Just like the attacks on September 11, their story speaks for itself.
** 1/2 / *****