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Meru

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/19/15 16:07:04

"Not the highest peak, but stands plenty tall."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The mountain that gives "Meru" its title is described within the film as "the anti-Everest", although as you might expect, that does not mean that it is a pleasant ascent even for those who get winded by the stadium seating we might have to navigate to see a movie about everything that could go wrong climbing one of those mountains on the big screen. Like many documentaries of this type, it's plenty thrilling, because even if the outcome is never in question, getting there takes a heck of an effort.

Meru Peak is called the anti-Everest because there are no sherpas to assist, but the nearly-vertical "shark's fin" route up it's central peak is extremely featureless even where it is not covered in ice; it requires several different types of expertise to navigate. When the party that this film follows makes their first attempt in 2008, no human had made the ascent. That group is Conrad Anker, one of the world's premier climbers; Jimmy Chin, his longtime partner (the pair have climbed Everest four times each); and Renan Ozturk, a younger mountaineer whose skills in online videos have impressed Anker. As if climbing over a mile straight up starting from a base camp at 14,500 feet isn't difficult enough, a storm has them staying in their portaledge for four days despite only having brought food for a week, and that is not the only challenge they will face.

Chin is one of the two credited directors, with the other being Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and the two are both experienced in their own way: Vasarhelyi has made several feature documentaries (the one I'd seen previously, Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love, does a nice job of being entertaining and informative); Chin is an award-winning photographer of these extreme environments. Ozturk is also credited not just as a cinematographer alongside Chin, but as part of the editorial department. Chin's directing credit surprised me a bit, because this never felt like a particularly first-person sort of documentary, and his accomplishments seem neither overstated nor presented with false modesty. I'm curious how this collaboration worked - was Chin in charge of getting good footage during the climb while Vasarhelyi was in charge on level ground - but it seems to be an effective one, seeming to able play to both mountaineers and the rest of us without being too inside or oversimplified (note: the pair married in 2013, which may make things either simpler or more complicated).

I suspect that this both helps and is helped by the way Anker, Chin, and Ozturk come across; both as a group on the mountain and separately in interviews, they seem almost blithely casual about this dangerous thing they do, although never ignorant. They simply understand that of which they speak and do not feel the need to exaggerate or downplay anything about it, and when they speak of things that are personally difficult, they don't feel compelled to over-explain or search for additional meaning. It makes them easy company, although the filmmakers don't downplay that their lifestyles can make them difficult for others to relate to.

Fortune also made their stories fairly dramatic, and not just during that 2008 ascent; toward the middle of the film, the narrative splits off to point out defining moments in the trio's lives, from the avalanche that claimed the life of Conrad's previous climbing partner to a pair of near-tragic calamities while Jimmy and Renan filmed a ski video at Jackson Hole which caused physical and psychic injuries for the pair. They do wind up feeling oddly-placed in the film - Conrad's story doesn't fit chronologically but putting it there keeps the film balanced, yes, but more importantly, it feels like a bit of an interruption even if it actually isn't. Chin and Vasarhelyi do manage to use some repetition around this to interesting effect, though the audience can't help but know the general shape of things - if it didn't turn out a certain way, there probably isn't a movie, after all.

Or maybe there would be, because this film has plenty of "look at that!" value. It's not just because the action takes place in a setting where any direction you point the camera has something amazing, but because Chin especially seems to be very good at communicating what he's experiencing to an audience; there are shots that are perspective-bending as the GoPros the mountaineers wear look out at the landscape, but they are seldom used to induce nausea or vertigo. Vasarhelyi is likely the storyteller on the team, and she proves quite adept at that, feeding the audience bits that will be nice to keep in mind over the course of the film - like how, even though the cold is a constant danger, it can also be an ally when you are trying to climb up ice which may be more likely to break up when struck with an ax in the daytime's relative warmth. It's also impressive how good some of the filmmaker technology has become in recent years - while the time in Gangotri, India (the nearest village) and the helicopter shots of the maintain have a little extra pop, there's no need to shy away from or shrink the footage captured by the helmet cams and small rigs Chin was able to bring on a very weight-sensitive expedition.

As long as one is getting good footage, the meat of this sort of true-life adventure is perhaps hard to screw up - it is like being along on an expedition to a previously unreachable place with all the attendant majesty and danger. These filmmakers don't screw it up and make it an impressive show to boot. It may not be as cinematically optimized as the dramatized Mt. Everest movie hitting giant screens a month into "Meru"'s release, but it's something to see, which is reason enough to go to the movies many nights.

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