Everest tells the story of the 1996 Everest Disaster. New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) runs Adventure Consultants, one of the companies that popped up in the 90s that specialized in taking amateur climbers up to the summit. Among his group that year was mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), who had just fell short of reaching the summit the previous year, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a haughty Texan with a family waiting for him back home, Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a 47 year-old Japanese woman who had reached six of the Seven Summits, and writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who was writing about the expedition for Outside magazine.
The film follows the Adventure Consultants team as they try to get through the unusually busy 1996 season, which had three other expeditions trying to summit at around the same time. The sheer number of people trying to reach the summit causes all sorts of problems, which are exacerbated when a vicious blizzard hits the mountain. Several books have been written by survivors of this disaster, and the film doesn’t seem to take any particular account over the others. It soberly breaks down the details of the expedition, distilling this story down to a simple retelling of events.
The film is very unsentimental. There is some room for personal drama within the film’s somewhat hefty runtime, but for the most part it concentrates on the sheer brutality of the undertaking. It doesn’t particularly revel in the dramatic visuals that a climb up Everest would likely entail. Reaching the summit in this movie doesn’t feel like a triumph. At best, it is the consolation prize for all that suffering. The film really sets out to make a climb up Everest look as terrible as possible, the workmanlike direction giving focus to the unforgiving conditions and unfathomable physical strain that one faces when taking on this grand human challenge.
And there isn’t really much more to it than that. The film doesn’t put forward much of a theme or even narrative arcs for any of the characters. It is a lean and mean recounting of the disaster, bordering on straight docudrama. There isn’t much in the way of directorial flair or dramatic interpretation. It really is just the story of how this all went down. This isn’t really a bad thing in itself, but it does lead one to ask what it is that we want from our movies. This film is a reasonably accurate account of a terrible thing that happened in real life. If you’re looking for more than that, for any sort of directorial stamp or personal statement, then it isn’t the film for you.
If you’re are, on the other hand, looking for a no-frills, technically proficient adaptation of real life events, then it’s hard to imagine a film better than this. Director Baltasar Kormakur gets out of the way of the story, faithfully translating details of the accounts with very little embellishment. The actors aren’t given much dramatic material to work with, given the approach, but the talent is formidable enough that it doesn’t quite matter. Jason Clarke really fits within this workmanlike approach, delivering an un-showy performance that gives the films it center. Around him, the likes of John Hawkes, Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal provide bursts of color against the unrelenting white and gray of the mountain.
Everest isn’t the most inspired film. As a dramatization of events, it is a little too sober, a little too unwilling to take thematic and artistic risks. But paradoxically, this might be the most audacious thing about the film. Many films are based on a true story, but few are willing to just stick to what actually happened. There is probably a happy medium between extremes, but for now the devotion of Everest to the simple truth combined with its high level of craft makes for a reasonably thrilling experience.