Touching the Void
Director: Kevin Macdonald. Docudrama. Cast: Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, Richard Hawking (as themselves), Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron. Screenplay: Kevin Macdonald (based on the book by Joe Simpson).

Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void seems like a movie whose conception couldn't be simpler: Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two renowned mountain climbers from Great Britain, relate the tale of how they both almost died while scaling a Peruvian peak together in 1985; meanwhile, two actors with hardly any dialogue reenact key episodes of the climb, its deadly perils, and its improbable aftermath. That's it. There is only one other figure in the entire film: Richard Hawking, a goofy-looking fellow with no mountaineering experience whom Joe and Simon rather arbitrarily enlisted to guard their campsite during what they imagined would be a one- or two-day adventure. In practice, Richard's occasional testimonies to the camera add incredibly little to our sense of the film's story, except for the incredible bad taste he divulges in telling us which of the two climbers he was most hoping would survive. Even in describing the worst sorts of anxiety and risk, he has this toothy, shit-eating grin on his face as though, almost two decades later, he can't believe he was lucky enough to be peripherally involved in a trauma that got made into a movie. In fact, it never is quite clear why Richard's input has been solicited; the film doesn't even bother to list the name of the actor playing Richard until halfway through the credit scroll, all by his lonesome amidst the gaffers and grips.

I start with Richard, because his presence in the film—not really a problem, but not strictly necessary—is indicative of my general frustrations with Touching the Void, my sense that a film whose signal virtues are its focus and inherent tension still manages to trip itself up in a clutter of gratuitous details and easily avoidable blunders. This isn't to say that the movie doesn't work. I doubt I will soon forget the gangrenous-looking faces and blackened fingers of these severely frostbitten climbers when each emerges from a week of being stranded, frozen, wind-scoured, and nearly killed. Joe Simpson, whose own memoir of the ordeal forms the basis for Touching the Void's script, proves himself a very able raconteur, effectively recreating both the excited hubris of his initial plan and the harrowing and eerily dispassionate way he talked himself into saving his own life. Simon Yates, too, is accessible and remarkably forthcoming. You quickly realize that the extreme clarity with which both men remember the tiniest details, nearly 20 years after they occurred, testifies in itself to the severity of what they endured, though it also has everything to do with their training as mountain-climbers: they never miss a detail, they seem to grasp and retain all the various implications of each decision and each step forward, and though their speaking styles are the opposite of florid, they still possess the verbal avidity of men who know they have seen things that most of us haven't.

It's the right decision, I think, to structure this story this way, as a survivor's reminiscence; it's a relief to discover that Touching the Void isn't interested in lurid suspense, nor does it seize opportunities for histrionic desperation among those who believe they are about to die. Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, the actor/climbers standing in for Joe and Simon respectively, aren't really called upon to give performances in the usual sense—like Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ, though in ever more humble context, they are on screen to suffer in almost total silence and to register a graphic impression of the frightening tale being narrated before us.

I have talked to a few people who have seen Touching the Void who felt the film lost something in telegraphing the story's outcome so early, and though I take the opposite view on this specific question, I wonder if there isn't a deeper problem being expressed in these complaints. The admirable leanness and non-sensationalism of Macdonald's approach should still provide a forum for the film to be about more than it is; Joe and Simon's experience is gripping enough to carry a film, but it's badly in need of context. A few years ago, Jon Krakauer wrote a bestselling book called Into Thin Air about a disastrous climb up Mount Everest. He, too, avoided the pornography and exploitative suspense of making us wonder who was to live and who was to die, but his decision counted for more than simple restraint. Into Thin Air offers a transfixing primer to the tools, rules, histories, and esoterica of mountain-climbing, offering a few insider stabs at psychologizing what it is about reaching an earthly summit that makes so many people travel thousands of miles to risk (and so often lose) their lives in the attempt. Especially remarkable and sobering in Krakauer's book is his attention to the economics and marketing culture which increasingly absorb the climbing world, so that the discipline and focus of the enterprise gets lost in a dense blizzard of commercial interests and reckless dilettantism. No one should be climbing Everest to have a story to tell when they get home to the Upper East Side, just as no one should be hawking a promise that they can get anyone, anyone all the way to the peak or their money back. Yet both seem to happen with some frequency. As haunting as it is when Krakauer describes the inevitable dementia that sets in at lofty altitudes, so that your reason is impaired at exactly those moments when your life depends on it, the real value of the book is the indirect account of dementia in our own world, where any experience, no matter how dangerous and specialized, can be colonized for profit or social cachet.

Everest seems like a whole different ballgame than the Andean caps that Joe and Simon are scaling here—which is not meant to diminish their achievement (never repeated since their climb), but to offer a possible reason why the film doesn't delve at all into those capitalist controversies and internecine debates of the mountaineering world which Krakauer captures so rigorously. But it is a problem that, failing this particular route, Touching the Void doesn't find any other issue or thematic to attach itself to. Really, it's just an illustrated guide to Simpson's book, but even this fails to cohere the movie in the way you might expect. For one, Macdonald, well-known as a documentarian (and the grandson of Emeric Pressburger), has almost zero gift for pictorializing, much less narrativizing, the journey that his subjects are describing. Though the inserted footage of moraines, glacial fields, and imperious snowcaps provides a general orientation to the landscape, Macdonald has a terrible habit of laying Joe and Simon's detailed descriptions overtop images that have nothing to do with them. Both men's emphasis on the profound risk and trust involved in tying yourself to your partner is badly neutralized when Macdonald's camera fails to show us how exactly this tying works, or how far apart the climbers actually are, until the story point when we need to know has already arrived. Touching the Void never seems unsincere or careless in conveying its story, but the filmmakers simply lack the climbers' own instinct for detail, and the movie badly needs a James Cameron who can choreograph the physical process without losing the emotional line.

The movie does tighten considerably at the tale's moment of crisis, during which Joe is horribly injured, Simon is forced to improvise a means of getting them both down single-handedly, and an unforeseeable snag in this plan leaves both men in mortal danger. The whopper of an ethical dilemma which follows is more than enough to power the film for a long while. Toward the end, though, as the now-separated climbers are trying to find their own ways back to base—and, the word doesn't seem too strong, to sanity—Macdonald and his crew start to get a little cute with the film-school effects, working hard to register Joe's panic and possible hallucinations with all kinds of rear-projections, skip-frame techniques, and other gimmicks that smack of Aronofskian excess. As in Requiem for a Dream, a story that should be about survival seems more and more like a diorama of the filmmaker's own precocious touches, and as a result, key points in even this simple narrative get jumbled. The worst instance is when the cross-cutting between Simon and Joe strongly implies that one of them has vacated the area several days before it turns out he has, which makes the conclusion seem less like a lucky break than a confusing mismatch.

The reason, it seems, why Simpson determined to write Touching the Void and for the memoir to be translated into film is that many climbers and people in their orbit have been faulting Simon for years for allegedly endangering Joe's life, or acting selfishly in finding his own, only marginally less ghastly way down the mountain. Joe has never subscribed to this version of events, and the exoneration of Simon (with Richard Hawking, of course, as his most frothing personal reference) rings loud and clear across the movie. And yet, this too seems like a missed opportunity, since the clash of convictions that this tale ignited within the profession seems just as dramatic as the tale we've observed. It would be intriguing, especially given the desperate exigencies which are well evoked here, to hear what some other climbing expert would have done in Simon's shoes. Like The Fog of War, however, Macdonald's documentary gets so involved in the account of its own interview subjects that it forgoes all other voices that might enrich or frame the testimony. And there you have Touching the Void: a recreation of true events that have apparently become legendary and incendiary within the professional idiom it describes. The movie gives us the events and hopes we will deduce the legend and dismiss the controversies if it can render the physical facts with enough souped-up, you-are-there verisimilitude. (Gosh, it really does sound like The Passion of the Christ.) Maybe Krakauer's book registers so much more powerfully than this movie because he can't really on aerial photography and shots of frozen breath to communicate what's really at stake in his story; maybe Touching the Void is in some way an instance of the mountaineering-as-tourism that Krakauer is so urgently trying to forestall. In any event, I watched the film with interest but without full understanding; I left, intrigued but not really illuminated. If that sounds like enough for you, by all means see it; if it sounds like half a movie, stay home and read a book. C+

Other Awards:
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Original Screenplay; Best British Film

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