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.