Touching the Void (review)

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In 1985, two young British mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, took a dangerous shot at an unconquered Andean peak, and it nearly killed both of them. Their story, legendary in mountaineering circles, now comes to the big screen in Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald’s remarkable “dramatized documentary.” You’re probably thinking the same thing I did: “Dramatized documentary” means “cheesy staged reenactments,” right? Wrong. Intercut with intense interviews with Simpson and Yates describing their incredible emotional and physical ordeal is a spectacular depiction — shot partly on the very mountain, Siula Grande, that almost defeated them — of their terrible experience. Just beginning their descent from the 21,000-foot summit, Joe (Brendan Mackey) falls and breaks his leg, a sure death sentence in so unforgiving a locale, but he and Simon (Nicholas Aaron) improvise their own rescue… which goes disastrously wrong almost immediately. The two men experience very separate trials: Simon makes a tough decision that cuts him off from Joe and, Simon believes, kills Joe as well; Joe, dehydrated, starving, in constant pain, and crippled, refuses to give up and die. How he got down off the mountain is a tale of almost superhuman endurance and hard-headed obstinacy that challenges us to consider how far we ourselves would go in order to save our own lives. On their own, neither the interviews with the real Simpson and Yates nor the reenactment with the actors could have conveyed more than a distant approximation of the actual experience. Together, they offer a hauntingly memorable hint of the cold dread of facing death.

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