Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:27
Release Date: 8/14/15 (limited); 9/4/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 3, 2015
Some people just have to climb that mountain. That's the primary takeaway of Meru, a documentary about a trio of mountain climbers twice attempting to scale the "Shark's Fin" summit of Meru Peak. That mountain, which is 21,850 feet high, is not the tallest in the world. It's not even the tallest in the Himalayas. Both of those honors, of course, belong to Mount Everest, which, for comparison, stands 29,029 feet above sea level. At 20,700 feet, the Shark's Fin isn't even the tallest summit of Meru Peak. People who know about these things call this particular summit the "anti-Everest," although that's not an insult. People have actually climbed Everest.
When these three start their first trek up Meru Peak, no one has reached the top of the Shark's Fin. While recounting their first failure, one of the climbers says he had hoped someone else would have reached the top after their attempt, so that he didn't need to try again. We don't learn too much about these men, beyond their unwavering devotion to climbing mountains against all logic and other worldly concerns. From what we do learn, it's probably safe to assume he isn't being especially honest in that statement. For some people, there's always another "that mountain" they need to climb.
This mountain, though, is a doozy. We likely learn more about it than we do the human beings trying to climb it and the ones who are left at home while the climbers go about their journey for whatever reason it is that they go about it.
Of course, one is probably thinking of that old rationale around this point: "Because it's there." Here's some trivia: George Mallory, the man responsible for those words, died on Everest, and one of the subjects of this movie became famous for finding his body. One of the movie's experts on the subject of climbing thinks it's unfair to Conrad Anker that he's mostly known for that discovery. What should we know about him? Well, he climbs, of course. What else is there to know?
To be fair, of the three climbers, Anker is the one climber here about whom we learn the most. He's a family man. He has lost two close friends—a mentor and climbing partner—to the sport. Anker thought those two were, respectively, better than him and his equal, yet they both died. Now, Anker wants to climb this peak, a feat that no one else has accomplished, and he has a wife and kids at home. By the by, the wife is the widow of the partner, and the partner was the father of those kids. Anker knows the risk, but the need to climb outweighs whatever tragic consequences and emotional devastation—for a family that already lost one husband/father to climbing—could result.
What's strange about the structure of this narrative is that we don't learn this information about Anker until well after his first attempt to climb the Shark's Fin. We understand why to a certain degree. It's a way on the part of co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi to raise the stakes and increase the tension of that second attempt. It's not exactly effective, since we see Anker and his climbing partners Jimmy Chin, who is credited as one of the movie's directors (It's his footage that makes up the overwhelming majority of the movie's climbing scenes), and Renan Ozturk (credited with Chin as a cinematographer) recalling both climbs for us in talking-head interviews. Instead, we're just wondering why such vital information about this man comes up seemingly at random.
Chin, we learn, makes a living photographing and filming in various treacherous locales. Ozturk was a "climbing bum," traveling to the desert of the American Southwest and painting what he saw. There's a sequence of events between the climbs that sees Ozturk seriously injured and Chin almost killed by an avalanche. To explain the impact of these and other setbacks, the climbing experts offer such insightful comments as, "He was really messed up; he was in a bad place psychologically." Ozturk's recovery from debilitating skull and spinal injuries receives a montage to get him back to the mountain as quickly as possible.
The greatest insights are saved for the mountain itself. We learn the history of failed attempts and about the terrain, which starts innocuously (for experienced climbers) and suddenly turns into a straight climb along featureless granite. In other words, the climbers have to chisel their way into the rock. If they chisel too far, well, it's not going to hurt the rock.
When we're with the Anker, Chin, and Ozturk on the peak's face, though, the movie offers some genuinely stunning sights. Even though we're fully aware that these men survived both ordeals, there's still an inescapable chill as Chin's camera looks straight down the vertical drop of the mountain, and it takes a certain kind of person to sleep at all in a tent hanging above that drop as the sounds of avalanches clatter next to them.
It's difficult not to admire the efforts of these men. That seems to be the only goal Meru hopes to achieve, and it's simply not enough.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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