Movie Reviews
1:02 pm
Mon March 8, 2004

Touching the Void

"Touching the Void" is satisfyingly serious stuff.

"Touching the Void" is what successful docudrama should be: thoroughly accurate and terrifyingly dramatic. The accuracy comes from the narration by original climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates; the drama comes from British filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September--the terrorist attack on the 1972 Israeli Olympic team in Munich).

In 1985 the two adventurers successfully ascended Siula Grande, a 21,000 peak in the Peruvian Andes, as they said, "The last big mountain face in [the] range of mountains that hadn't been climbed." It was the descent that caused the problems: Yates had to cut the lifeline that sent Simpson into the void of a crevasse. What ensues is the most convincing case for the survival instinct of all living things. Regardless of his broken leg and seemingly insurmountable odds, Joe painfully descends to the base camp, ostensibly because he couldn't abide not moving. I find his instinct to survive is as strong as anyone else's.

The brilliance of the film is to keep suspense although we know the outcome, "Citizen Kane" on a mountain. The cinematography, with swirling vistas both hypnotic and menacing, and the editing, from narrators to actors and back, create movement and danger when the former is almost impossible and the latter a given. Their using the "one push" climbing method (carrying entire gear rather than staching along the way) adds immensely to the do-or-die flavor.

The only other similar film I can think of is "The Endurance," a retelling of Sir Ernest Shackelton 's doomed expedition to Antarctica in 1914-1916. It used relatives and archival footage to create a totally believable documentation of the failure.

Said Lafcadio Hearn, "You do not laugh when you look at the mountains . . . ." "Touching the Void" is satisfyingly serious stuff, ultimately harrowing because of the intense personal, private pain of the climbers.