By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — What went wrong?
That’s the central question posed by The Summit, an absorbing documentary that details the fateful and disastrous 2008 mountain-climbing expedition that resulted in the deadliest day in modern-day mountaineering.
The Summit chronicles the tragic course that led to the death of 11 mountaineers who were answering mountain climbing’s steepest challenge: they were attempting to climb and then get down K2, located on the Pakistan-China border. It’s the second-highest mountain on Earth (after Everest) and generally considered the world’s most dangerous, which is why it’s been nicknamed “Savage Mountain.”
There’s breathtaking scenery along the way, to be sure, which we should only momentarily notice, what with our hearts in our mouths as we worry about the endangered collective protagonist on their perilous journey up and down K2, which itself becomes a large, villainous character in this real-life drama.
Pity, then, that the film doesn’t generate just a bit more in the way of emotional engagement. Not that there isn’t enough to go around.
On August 1, 2008, 25 veteran, very-high-altitude, very-high-risk climbers from all over the world -– from Norway, Ireland, the US, Korea, Japan, Spain, France, Nepal, Pakistan, Serbia, and elsewhere — reached the highest camp of K2, but nearly half of them were to lose their lives or vanish into literally thin air over the next two days.
Debuting documentarian Nick Ryan produces and directs from Mark Monroe’s compelling script, which accepts the mountain-climbing addiction as such and refrains from exploring the psychological motivations for such extreme risk-taking behavior — just “because it’s there,” we presume.
Instead, and more productively, he mixes archive footage, photographs, interviews, survivors’ testimony, and carefully rendered reenactments (a chancy embellishment, but one that works in this case), and he freely admits that there are mysteriously unanswered questions that remain.
At times The Summit resembles a low-key found-footage horror flick, but it’s mostly an affective, effective portrait of “the bigger the dream, the bigger the risk” mountaineering.
The film pays special tribute to one mountain climber in particular, Ger McDonnell, who goes against the established code of behavior by going out of his way and risking –- and losing — his life to help fellow climbers in trouble. His disappearance still haunts his grieving loved ones, several of whom are involved with the making of the film.
To set the record straight and rescue McDonnell’s reputation (not, as they say, that there’s anything wrong with that) is the film’s submerged agenda. And while that may somewhat undermine the film’s journalistic objectivity, it doesn’t lessen its fascination or value.
So we’ll climb 2½ stars out of 4 for The Summit, a sadly engrossing documentary that makes a mountain out of a mountain. And while it sufficiently answers the question at the top of this review, it still leaves us with the other big question: Why do they do this?