Touching the Void (2003)


Ebert: TV Guide:




















Warning, Major plot points revealed!

Touching the Void is a film that reaffirms my belief that mountain climbers are completely suicidal and insane.  No matter how much they talk about the whole Zen spirituality of the experience, I can only see the ridiculous stupidity of it.  

I do love movies about climbers and their "accidents" not because I respect their quest, but more because they are akin to a thinking persons episode of the TV show Jackass.  I don't feel sorry for their self induced peril but it's fun to watch.  The pain, torture, agony and horrors of the sport do not seem to justify the prize of standing atop a mountain and peeking around at the view for a few minutes.

Touching the Void does an amazingly masterful job of recreating the events of the climb.  In 1985 Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to climb the west face of "Siula Grande," a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes.  They made it up OK and savored a few minutes at the peak, but on the way back down things went bad.  The snowy weather kicked up to a blinding white-out.  Simpson fell and broke his leg right at the start of the decent, driving his lower leg bones up through his knee and into his thigh.  Instead of leaving him to die, Yates devises a plan to use their combined 300 feet of rope to lower Simpson down the side of the mountain in stages.  This works for a little while but eventually Simpson gets lowered over a steep drop-off with a huge crevasse at the bottom.  He is unable to tell Yates, who struggles against Simpson's dangling weight, and will eventually be dragged over the precipice himself.  A decision is made and Yates cuts the rope. 

I won't tell you the rest because you want to see it now, right?  As well you should.  It's probably one of the most exciting documentaries I've ever seen.  

Unlike most documentaries, which arrange a bunch of still shots and some actual footage with a heavy mix of junky "Unsolved Mysteries-type" re-enactments, Touching the Void realistically re-creates the entire expedition from beginning to end.  Simpson, Yates and their base camp buddy, Richard Hawking, narrate the entire film as if regaling guests at a dinner party, while Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey act it out.  The film cuts back and forth between the real people and the actors playing out their described ordeal.  It's really fascinating.  

As far as special effects go they are pretty seamless.  There are obviously many effects used in the re-creation and I saw about 5 stunt men listed in the credits.  This was probably necessary because it would have been impossible to put sane actors into the required deadly circumstances.  The movie was shot on location in Peru and the Alps.  However they accomplished it, the final result is far more impressive than most documentary standards.  

The actors, Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey do a great job too.  I mean a really great job.  Because it happened in 1985 and the actors are covered with ice and blood for most of the film you never really notice that they don't exactly resemble their real life counterparts.  It's kind of like Sam Rockwell playing Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous MindThey just sort of become the people they are playing and you immediately accept them in the roles. 

I know most people will not leap from their chair and rush out to the theater to see a documentary.  Trust me, you won't accidentally "learn anything" by watching this film.  It's just an entertaining little drama that happens to be a true story.  I recommend it on the big screen only because the mountain vistas are awesome and the scope will be lost on the television.  Go check it out if it's playing in your area.  I really liked it.  It's a great movie.