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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Some reviews have mentioned the disjointedness of the storytelling, and
while The Summit is sometimes confusing in its recounting of the
deadliest single day of mountaineering on K2, regarded by many as the
most treacherous of the 8,000km peaks, what ultimately dooms this
sometimes breathtaking film is its blatant agenda to idolize Irish
climber Ger McDonnell.
First, like many mountain-climbing films, the cinematography is simply astounding, and nearly makes up for its later flaws. There are scenes from the top of K2, the world's second highest mountain, that will leave you slack-jawed. K2's shadow in the late afternoon, hundreds of miles away in China, appears to rise out of the atmosphere like an Egyptian pyramid. Other passages, like the tricky negotiation of the Bottleneck, with a massive ice serac ominously looming overhead, will have you questioning the sanity of these climbers, much like Touching the Void and Into Thin Air (the book, not the TV movie).
And it is during these times that The Summit is at its best--illuminating the folly of those who sacrifice so much and risk everything to climb a savage mountain such as K2. The interviews with survivors such as Wilco van Rooijen and Cecilie Skog will you have you scratching your head at the way they appear to simply shrug off the death of a fellow climber (Dren Mandić, the first of 11 fatalities) and continue their ascent. These interviews are expertly spliced with the comments of some of the Sherpas and high-altitude porters present that really have you questioning whether you would want some of these people climbing with you. These moments are interspersed with dramatic reenactments that are quite well done and heighten the proceedings.
This is when The Summit is most effective--when it attempts to explore questions such as the motivation of climbing in a death zone not meant to support human life, the heroism (or foolishness) of attempting to save a fellow climber at that height, and the fragility of human existence in such a tenuous environment where one minor mistake can mean death.
Unfortunately, this is a documentary with an agenda. Instead of collecting the facts, presenting both sides, and letting the viewer decide for him- or herself, the filmmakers set out to validate and idolize McDonnell. Now, none of us were there that day, and the very fact that the survivors themselves are not sure what happened on K2 makes the story even more alluring. But director Nick Ryan paints a heavy-handed picture that questions the veracity of Italian survivor Marco Confortola. One of the ways Ryan accomplishes this is to weave the story of Walter Bonatti into the film. Bonatti was part of the first ascent of K2 in 1954 but was not selected to make the summit, instead being assigned to carry oxygen to the camps. He was accused of using the oxygen by Achille Compagnoni which put the expedition at risk and for years was ostracized by the Alpinist community. Ryan somehow forces this into his theme of McDonnell's heroics, so in effect, the long-awaited vindication of Bonatti is ironically used to discredit a fellow Italian climber.
Yet the use of Bonatti and footage from 1954 has the effect of confusing the viewer; simultaneously, Ryan fails to mention that the in-depth investigations into the disaster on K2 by NY Times writer Graham Bowley as well as Michael Kodas have concluded that Confortola's story is most likely true and the "evidence" cited by Ryan is inconclusive at best. Ultimately, the ulterior motives of the film destroys what could have been a beautiful and troubling examination of what drives men and women to risk it all to attain a summit like K2.
This is a story about tragedy caused by complete and utter confusion.
From simple mistakes at the beginning of the attempt everything turned
into chaos that cost many lives.
So, given that confusion in the subject matter, it would be difficult to remove confusion from the documentary. Sadly, the creators seem to have actually gone out of their way to introduce more confusion. Out of sequence histories, introducing another (related) story, and not attempting to tie everything together.
I'm glad that I watched this movie, I just would have liked it to be better put together.
This is a fascinating story and a filmmaker's dream. But the filmmakers managed to make the story very confusing. The interviews are often hard to understand because of the different accent the people have. Then, it is mixed and edited in confusing sequence. Critical questions are not asked, it is a discovery-style movie but so poorly scripted that at the end one still question himself...so what did actually happen? The footage and scenery delivers spectacular views, but unfortunately the film does not transfer the drama which has taken place that day. Let someone take the material, re-shuffle it into a proper order and add a voice-over who can put some context, structure and critical notes in.
From what I understood, this documentary set out to answer a difficult
moral dilemma: should a climber endanger his own life in order to save
others'? I think it did a beautiful job at giving a rather complete
picture of people's different perspectives, attitudes, projected
against the outcome. It is probably one of the best documentaries that
I have seen, in the sense that it manages to capture the gist of this
On a more personal note, I really liked the comment that the widow of one of the perished climbers makes towards the end of the movie. It raises an interesting question "of judgment" for the people that are outside the climbing world.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
So-so documentary portrays events of 2008 on K2.
Things are getting crowded on mountain tops. We had the massive loss of life on Everest this year. And Krakauer's documented event on Everest. And 2008 on K2.
- Bad things happen when too many people hook onto a rope.
- Slow climbers slow all climbers.
- Dependency on ropes is similarly fatal, and attracts novice climbers.
Pity this documentary focuses on after events, instead of pointing out that (1) leaving too late in the day, with (2) too many climbers on the same route at the same time, and (3) mixing in novice teams, on a mountain as deadly, unpredictable and daunting as K2 is a recipe for disaster. Throw in a dash of summit fever -- people not knowing when to turn around and live to climb another day -- and you have K2 in 2008.
Noticeably absent from this documentary is the voice of Ed Viesturs -- perhaps the safest high altitude climber of them all.
For what it is worth, I would have appreciated the dramatization moments being labeled as such. Or be removed/replaced with voice-over of the people involved and still/video images of K2.
Neither a great nor an awful documentary, let's at least try to learn from it and other sources. That would be showing respect for those who have gone before us.
On August 2008, 11 mountain climbers die on top of the world second
highest peak K2. This is a mix of interviews, documentary and
recreations to tell the story of the eclectic mix of international
teams of climbers. Also it has interviews with Walter Bonatti who is
the youngest member of the '54 Italian expedition to summit K2 for the
This is such a compelling true story. The climb and the descend is very tense. The only problem comes with a confused recounting of any controversy in the last 15 minutes. The ending is about a search for what happened to Ger McDonnell. It seems necessary to concentrate much more on him for the whole movie. Since they're doing recreations anyways, it's probably best to just do a narrative story with Ger as the protagonist.
High-altitude mountaineering fascinates many people, this reviewer
included, for the extreme demands it places on sportsmen engaged on the
sport. They go to places where helicopters don't go, where no human
could live for extended periods of time. Different than other extreme
nature sports like rafting, cross-country skiing or long-distance
trekking, mountaineering provides the only way for people to reach
places that are higher above the rest of the World.
In this context, I generally like documentaries and docudramas that focus on various aspects of the sport, its challenges and also its tragedies.
However, The Summit covers a nice story on a confusing and haphazard edition. It combines real-time footage of events, 'debriefing'-style post-fact interviews and dramatization of events are accounted by those that survived or witnessed them first-hand. All that material should yield a great final piece, but I'm left with the feeling of watching an unfinished job, or a piece that was somehow the result of compromises of an intractable committee with diverging opinions on how the documentary should look like.
If one is to delve into the wealth of mountaineering lit that is easily
attained, it doesn't take long to understand that mountaineering on
tourism mountains like Everest (and now it seems K2), is ultimately an
exercise in selfishness. A team experienced in mountaineering,
minimising risks on a tough to conquer mountain is fine. Standing in a
queue under a massive Serac, well past the turn-back time, deep in the
Deathzone, is not mountaineering. In scenarios like that, I root for
In this respect, I believe "The Summit" performs well. Blondie's crocodile tears seem specifically edited to fool no-one. The other protagonists all seem at ease with their dis-ease. They seem to realise the folly and they don't try to paint themselves in any more of a appealing light. So from that respect, the interviews with the survivors seem believable.
However the documentary is very fragmented and often confusing. No major attempt is made to shed further light on this wipe-out of human life and if you're looking for facts, you'll struggle.
The hero of this Irish doc is Ger McDonnell. The only climber who seemed to acquit him or herself with any bravery that those without a notion of the dangers of high altitude, could find remote sympathy for. While others struggled for their lives, he is portrayed as a hero, almost unaffected by his surroundings. In truth, the gravity of the situation is not well portrayed. With this in mind, watch "Touching the Void" or "North Face".
In short, fair play to those involved in the making of this documentary and their are some interesting perspectives (McDonnell's family portray strength and intelligence). If the point is to swipe at tourism mountaineering, then job done. Unfortunately, I've seen much better.
This movie shows the challenges met by a high altitude mountaineer on K2 and the codes they conform to in order to survive. Its well worth watching to get a great insight into such a dangerous activity and try and portray the enormous risks and challenges people take in conquering the most dangerous mountain in the world. The movie also tells the truth of what really happened on the mountain from reliable witnesses (the surviving climbers themselves). It was also great to see such a great character Ger McDonnell shine through in his personality and character from personal footage on the mountain. It makes me proud to see such a great Irishman accomplishing such a huge challenge. 10 out of 10 for an overall excellent film
"He discovers things about his own body and mind that he had almost
forgotten in the day-to-day, year-to-year routine of living." James
Ramsey Ullman, High Conquest.
I don't know about you, but if I were approaching the "death zone" while mountain climbing, I'd turn back. However, you can bet the heroes of the documentary, The Summit, hiking the world's second biggest and most difficult mountain (it defeats 1 out of every 4 climbers), K2, had no such thoughts. The Summit won the Sundance World Cinema documentary award this year.
More interesting than the physical exploits is the rationale for doing such a dangerous sport in the first place. Yet, such psychoanalyzing is not a matter for The Summit, a thrilling doc long on the difficult climb and more difficult decisions while fates are decided in sometimes inscrutable and random ways. It's short on the motivation, which pretty much is accepted these days as, "because it's there."
Eleven climbers of 25 lost their lives that day in 2008 without an adequate explanation for any of the deaths. However this thesis is proved once more: Most lives in climbing are lost on the descent. The film has a fragmented, multiple-points-of-view (think of a climbing Rashomon) approach that cuts among the several players and history while featuring a couple of the more charismatic climbers, especially Ger McDonnell, whose death is the most difficult to understand even as he's touted for his alleged attempt to save 3 Korean climbers.
This discursive storytelling can be confusing while it saps the thrust of the inherently intriguing story. The many re-enactments drain the film of its immediate "what-the" doc impact. The film retains some of the awe we all feel when in the presence of such a manifestation of Nature's power:
"You do not laugh when you look at the mountains, or when you look at the sea." Lafcadio Hearn
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