September, 2015, Documentary


Documentaries are a distinct minority in the films reviewed on JakesTakes. Because so few of them receive commercial distribution, it’s difficult to find even the best of them in theaters across the country. Yet it’s hard to imagine how audiences could be better served in developing a deeper understanding of the soaring beauty of avian flight, (Winged Migration) or the political motivations of our military, (The Fog of War) the dangers of back-breaking manual labor in the 3rd world, (Workman’s Death) or the  smug venality of corporate felons (The Smartest Guys in the Room). On these and any number of other fascinating subjects, great documentaries are a splendid addition to movies as a whole.

So it is with this visually stunning examination of the ascent of Meru, nicknamed “The Shark’s Fin”, a sheer wall of rock atop a part of  the Indian Himalayas whose 20,000 foot peak has lured – and then thwarted - repeated attempts by climbers to accomplish a successful assent.

Meru examines the efforts of a trio of professional climbers (Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin & Renan Ozturk) to become the first humans to stand atop The Fin’s windswept summit. Using an amazing (and dangerously heavy) array of equipment as well as Go-Pro cameras and accompanied by sophisticated aerial photography, Meru chronicles a pair of attempts to go where none has ever gone before.  But the movie combines this jaw dropping cinematography with extensive interviews of the three climbers and a profane but riveting commentary by author John Krakauer (Into the Wild), in an attempt to ascertain the motivations behind these consistently high-risk careers. All three climbers are articulate, cautious about the dangers evident in their chosen pursuit and aware that they have obligations to the wives and families they leave behind when they undertake challenges that are not only physically daunting but potentially lethal.

Chin and Ozturk share honors as the film’s cinematographers and their ability to put the audience at the center of their endeavors produces audible gasps from the audience. So does wince-inducing footage that vividly examines the physical abuse the climbers stoically endure. Chin and his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi intersperse vivid glimpses of  isolated physical majesty encased in an environment so ominously forbidding that is only serves to underscore the fundamental question Meru repeatedly raises: “Why on earth do they do it?”</p>

Yet despite extensive soul-searching by all three, Meru fails to answer that question. And despite Krakauer’s repeated assertions that all three are resolutely averse to taking unnecessary risk, viewers can be forgiven for concluding that it’s precisely the intoxication of danger that grips these physically gifted athletes to flirt so outrageously with injury and death.

Is it worth it? Without a trace of personal egoism, all three suggest that it is. But is it justifiable to their families who are forced to suffer and wait? As Ander’s wife Jennifer, (herself the widow of Anker’s previous hiking partner) ruefully admits, “Maybe I should have married a cowboy”.

 The Verdict? A visually stunning examination of obsession and the men who take exorbitant risks to satisfy it.



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