Say the word “docudrama” and most moviegoers run screaming for the exits, desperate to avoid a technique so abused by low-rent TV crime shows.
Yet in the right hands, a docudrama can deliver all the excitement, emotion and storytelling of the very best feature films — and director Kevin Macdonald has done that with startling clarity in the mountaineering adventure “Touching the Void.”
So many facets of this project were promising even before it all came together.
Macdonald had already won both an Emmy and an Academy Award for his documentary “One Day in September,” about the 1972 kidnapping of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. And the setting of “Touching the Void”— the craggy, forbidding vistas of the Peruvian Andes — could not be more awe-inspiring.
Plus the true story of Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ fateful 1985 ascent of the 21,000-foot Siula Grande — based on Simpson’s book of the same name — was so compelling that no novelist could have improved it.
In an era before satellite phones, before daring Himalayan pilots stretched the limits of high-altitude helicopter rescues, Simpson and Yates thought they had found the secret to conquering some of the world’s most difficult mountains. Instead of setting up a series of base camps, they used a technique called “alpine style” that relied on speed, good weather, minimal supplies and maximum fitness.
Their brash optimism had one flaw, however: the plan left no margin for error.
A hotly debated decisionIn a story known to all mountaineers, the super-talented duo roared ahead to Siula Grande’s summit, accomplishing a feat the filmmakers say no one has still ever matched.
On the way down, however, Simpson shattered his leg in a fall. Yates tried to lower his partner down the mountain with a rope, but 300-foot cliffs and massive ice crevasses thwarted his best efforts. Simpson was left dazed with pain and hanging helplessly on the end of a rope.
Facing the prospect of one death or two, Yates made a decision that has been hotly debated for nearly 20 years. We won’t spoil the movie by revealing what he did, but the fact that Yates and Simpson both survived is a testament to human will and determination.
Working in both Peru and the Alps, Macdonald overcame enormous technical challenges as he filmed actor/climbers Brendan Mackey (playing Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (Yates) recreating the climbing scenes. Stuntmen Dave Cuthbertson and Rory Gregory handled the most dangerous falls.
The filmmakers’ base camp in Peru was a three-day hike past the end of the closest road and the location was so remote that 80 donkeys — not helicopters —had to bring in the equipment. Temperatures in the Alps dropped to 20 below during filming and hypothermia was “a constant threat,” according to producer John Smithson.
Tough beans. All the audience cares about is what they see: a dazzling display of rock, ice, snow and man’s determination to survive.
The movie’s variations upon the theme of white dwarf even the well-documented snow vocabulary of Greenlanders. Macdonald finds soft power-white snow, harsh white-blue icicles, melting muddy glacier whites, suffocating avalanches of white cement. Scenes that reveal the sheer depths of some of these glacier crevasses go on, and on, and on in remarkable detail.
Gut-wrenching scenesThe fact that “Touching the Void” is a true story gives it more of a gut impact than even the best fictional films — Sylvester Stallone dangling from a rope in “Cliffhanger,” or Tom Cruise’s gorgeous opening climbing sequence for “Mission Impossible.”
Makeup designer Sarita Allison should be commended for the actors’ blackened, frostbit fingers and their painfully cracked skin, which looked exactly like news photos of the traumatized survivors of 1996’s fatal Mount Everest climbs.
The climbing scenes are interspersed with interviews of Yates and Simpson, who describe their emotions at each step of the way. Having them speak provides a needed break from the intense action scenes, but they could talk a little less and the audience would still get the point.
For kids who dream of accomplishing great things or adults with bad knees who are happy just to celebrate the power of the human spirit, “Touching the Void” is an exhilarating trip.