Over the next few weeks, much will be written about “Everest,” the star-heavy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin) film about the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that formed the basis of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”
Early reviews have been strong – the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival – but “Everest” has some competition in the white-knuckle climbing derby.
The documentary “Meru” is an involving, powerful film that brings the viewer as close to the feeling of climbing as any piece of cinema could. Directed by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, “Meru” took home the documentary Audience Award at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and should prove one of 2015’s most popular nonfiction entries.
While it’s an exhausting effort that culminates in a rather anticlimactic final stretch, “Meru” is a visual stunner that smartly focuses on three fascinating individuals who rank among the planet’s most accomplished climbers.
One of these is co-director Jimmy Chin, a young mountain climbing star with an unusual past – his parents were immigrants from China – who also is a hugely talented photographer.
Chin’s mentor is one of the world’s most gifted and well-known climbers: Conrad Anker, the man who memorably discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest. He also is the survivor of an avalanche in Tibet that killed his climbing partner, Alex Lowe.
Chin calls Anker a “hero to young climbers,” such as the third member of the team, Renan Ozturk. A rising star, Ozturk is less experienced than his teammates but no less courageous.
All three have taken many of the world’s tallest and fiercest mountains. But Meru? This mountain in the Indian Himalayas is a different story. As Anker puts it, “Meru is the culmination of everything I’ve ever done,” a complex monster of nature that had thus far proven un-doable.
The “Shark’s Fin” route up Meru is the “in” for this trio, but as the film makes clear, any Meru route is “the test of the master climber,” says author Krakauer, who adds insightful commentary throughout the doc. The world’s greatest climbers “tried and failed,” he notes.
Krakauer explains that Anker “first tried the mountain on 2003 and got his a-- kicked.” This is perhaps why he seems the most full-on dedicated to the quest. A family man who lives in scenic Montana, Anker knows his chance to take Meru must happen soon.
The trio’s first ascent starts disastrously, and this is the film’s most compelling section. Stuck in a blinding snowstorm for four days, the team lost half its food with 90 percent of the mountain still to go.
Ozturk was ready to give up the climb, but Chin and Anker focused on continuing. (I’m with Ozturk.) The worse the storm gets, the harder the decision of what to do next. As Anker puts it, “What if we push on? Should we push on?”
With severe cases of frostbite and trench foot, the answer is “no.” Interestingly, however, one of the team faces his greatest physical (and emotional) setback years after the first ascent.
It is no spoiler to say the trio eventually return to Meru, and by this point, the film has lost some of its earlier verve, and much of its inherent drama. Yet there is satisfaction in seeing Anker, Chin and Ozturk return to the Shark’s Fin.
Through it all, the documentary features breathless action and awe-inducing imagery, while at the same time asking important and probing questions about the whys of mountain climbing. Is it worth it? What if life hangs in the balance? And what makes one try again and again?
As Ozturk states near the film’s end, “It was worth possibly dying for.” Whether or not the viewer agrees, “Meru” makes for a unique viewing experience.