I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The avalanche on Everest last month that killed 16 Sherpas and shut down the climbing season for the year is the other bookend to what may turn out to be a brief window in human history that stretches back to only the 1920s: the era in which the tallest mountain on Earth was summitable. The earliest possible moment opened up when the right life-support technology came along; the melting of the ice on the mountain, on which much of the actually climbing actually happens, could signal the closing of the window.
This new documentary thrillingly re-creates the first successful summit in 1953, at a time when there had been numerous failed attempts and many deaths, and still no one was even sure if humans could survive at an altitude of 29,000 feet. Documentarian Leanne Pooley beautifully combines archival footage — including gorgeous color film shot by the members of the British expedition — with new and archival interviews and, most excitingly, with 3D re-creations of the “romantic quest” to get to one of the last great frontiers on the planet. As a kid, I remember being told that Edmund Hillary was the first man atop Everest, and I suppose I imagined one lone climber braving the elements on his own; it wasn’t until much much later that I learned that he was accompanied by Tenzing Norgay; and it wasn’t until I saw this film that I realized how incredibly huge that 1953 expedition was, or that it was months long.
There’s some slyly funny cultural commentary to be found here: slid in among all the “last hurrah of the British empire” rah-rah is the observation that New Zealander — read: colonial — Hillary (and the other New Zealander on the team) had a lot more drive and mountaineering experience than the English public-school boys who made up the rest of the expedition. And there’s enormous respect for the hard work the Sherpas do as porters hauling supplies through unforgiving territory, and for Tenzing, who was actually a mountaineer with, we’re told, a hunger to get to the top of Everest in a way that made him a true partner in spirit as well as physical effort for Hillary.
Pooley’s re-created footage — shot in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, with actors Chad Moffitt as Hillary and Sonam Sherpa as Tenzing — offers some dizzying mountain vistas that take true advantage of 3D, and are probably the closest any of us will ever come to experiencing such remote geographical extremes. But there’s something even more ineffably electrifying about the black-and-white photos Hillary took at the top of the world. Seeing those on a big screen left me with a lump in my throat as big as a mountain.