Finally caught this on cable last night; it looks as if someone took an original made-for-TV movie, removed all the commercial breaks, and sent it straight over to HBO to serve as filler on their late night schedule.
Since this IS obviously a TV movie (you can tell without trying where the commercials were originally inserted, since a 'dramatic climax and musical stinger' moment occurs every 10-12 minutes), it takes a TV movie approach to telling the story. And this is where the problem lies. Even though the screenplay tries very hard to present an even-handed and fair account of a complex and chaotic series of events in under two hours, the way the story is filmed sinks the movie.
I assumed, going 'blind' into this movie (I know of the book, I've read discussions of the book and the events it portrays, but I haven't actually read the book), that since it involved disaster while climbing at high altitudes, that we would be hearing a lot of strained respiration, a lot of gasping and panting, a lot of throaty vocals. I assumed that we would be seeing a bunch of people staggering painfully up snowy slopes, and lots of closeups of actors taking off their snow goggles and respiration masks (revealing chapped, stubbly faces set in lines of strain), making speeches, and then putting the goggles and masks back on again. And then more staggering, lather, rinse, repeat.
And this is essentially the action for 2/3rds of the movie. People gasp, pant, groan, stagger, stumble around, etc., and then take off their goggles and masks and make speeches (or grimace wordlessly into the camera) for what seems like 90% of the screen time. And then they put the mask and goggles back on and stagger and gasp and groan some more. Once the storm hits, and people start dying, it's really just more of the same, just darker and with more flying snow.
I know it is VERY difficult to 'act' in costumes and props like these, which muffle both facial expressions and body language, two of an actor's most important resources. It must have been a tremendous challenge for the director and cast to try to make a compelling, but entertaining story with this handicap...and while everyone here gives it their best effort, they are essentially defeated by the enormity of the challenge of trying to 'act' under these conditions and with this kind of story and camera treatment. The movie desperately needed more long shots, more establishing shots that let the viewer figure out where all the parties are in relationship to each other, less jump cutting between faces and more character development of each actor's part (other than 'ready to drop from fatigue').
So the results are, well, mixed. I am certain that for the climbers caught in the Everest disaster, that the experience was indeed essentially an endless nightmare of bone-numbing cold and fatigue, gasping for air, and stumbling around with barely a clue. So I think you could say that "Into Thin Air" gives the viewer an accurate subjective view of how it FELT to be in that situation, and on that level, it is a success. But as a story, as an attempt to convey the actual events and decisions, personalities and politics that lead to the actual disaster, it fails both as a documentary and as entertainment.
I also think that the professional and amateur climbing community might have its own reservations about this movie, and its glib summaries of the many complexities and intricacies of the kind of people who climb stuff for fun. But that's for them to bring up, not me.
So, in summary : glad I finally saw it, and I plan to go read the book now. But I don't think it was an especially successful movie.I'm not even sure that a successful dramatic movie (as opposed to a documentary) CAN be made about this story. I give these folks credit for trying hard, but they couldn't get make this story fit into a TV movie format.
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