The first time I read John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air I was mesmerized by the events that took place on Mount Everest in May of 1996. How could 11 people, including some of the most skilled climbers in the world, perish on a mountain in a single day?
Further study made the situation a little more clear, but I still couldn’t quite grasp what had truly happened. For the record, Krakauer is an exceptional author and if you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. That said, my perception of mountain climbing and Everest in particular became much clearer this weekend.
Before I continue, I will say that I have a slightly better understanding of how difficult it is to function at high altitude after climbing Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, this summer. While that was a grueling four-day excursion, the Everest base camp (that’s the starting point) is more than 3,000 feet higher than the summit of Whitney. So this is no small undertaking, and the film won’t let you forget it. From the heavy breathing, constant coughing and the inability to move to the blinding snow and falling rocks, you really feel like you’re on the mountain with these people. Add to that the element of IMAX and 3D glasses and this thing truly pops off the screen from the very beginning (and for the record, I’m not typically a fan of 3D but this one didn’t let me down.)
Having done a fair amount of research, combining the pieces from Krakauer’s book with articles and various accounts from what really happened, the film appears to be fairly accurate from my vantage point (and I’m a self-proclaimed expert of all things so you can take that to the bank.) Tears could be heard in the theater as climbers made last phone calls to loved ones, and you really understand the plight of those back on solid ground, wondering why their significant others chose to spend $65,000 and two months of their lives to tackle something so difficult. As Beck Weathers, brilliantly played by Josh Brolin, puts it: “Because it’s there.” The screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy shows the passion for this particular climb as Doug Hansen, played by John Hawkes, gives an emotional speech about the struggles he’s faced just to be there and the idea that he’s doing it to prove to himself that he can.
Stunning photography by Salvatore Totino highlights the beauty of the region, while reminding the audience that this is a very, very dangerous place. Director Baltasar Kormakur really shines, showing a wonderful range; Rob Hall, played by Jason Clarke, is the unapologetic star of this story, and the scenes he shares with his pregnant wife, played by Keira Knightley, don’t leave a dry eye in the house. Kormakur’s vision doesn’t disappoint during action sequences either, as the mountain is slammed by a sudden storm, the wind howling so loudly that the theater shook, before cutting to sudden, deafening silence and clear skies, a reminder that the weather can be fickle and deadly.
An exceptional performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, playing climbing celebrity (yeah, that’s a thing) Scott Fischer brings an element of fun to the story, his love for climbing clearly apparent. It’s hard not to identify with at least one of the characters on-screen, giving every viewer something to relate to. Both intensely tragic and yet somehow inspirational, this is a movie-going experience not to be missed.