Touching The Void

February, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Kevin MacDonald

Starring:Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, and Ollie Ryall

Unfortunately, few movies contain the necessary elements that simply make you get out to a theater and see them. This is one of those rare exceptions; it follows The Fog of War as the second truly superb movie of 2004. 

Part documentary, part recreation of past events, Void recounts the ill-fated scaling of the west face of Siula Grande, (a little-known mountain in the Peruvian Andes) by a pair of British climbers in 1985. The actual mountaineers involved, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, are interviewed about their exploits in a traditional "talking head" format, but these static segments are shrewdly interspersed with a brilliantly staged recreation of their experience, featuring actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron. 

Having ascended to the summit of the mountain, the climbers began their descent in the face of foul weather and a lack of the liquid fuel necessary to convert snow into badly needed drinking water. Working in the lead, Simpson suffered a disastrous fall, breaking his leg so seriously that Yates was forced to tie their ropes into a single life-line and laboriously lower his partner bit by bit down the mountainside. Thus separated by hundreds of feet during a storm producing zero visibility, Yates found himself suddenly being dragged down the face of the slope by Simpson's body, which had fallen off a precipice and instantly become dead weight. Believing his partner to be dead because he was unresponsive to tugs on the rope, Yates delayed making a decision as long as he could and then cut himself free in order to prevent his own death, solo-ing down an impossibly vertical slope at the height of the storm.

But amazingly, Simpson survived his plunge into space. Unable to signal that information to his partner because of his awkward suspension in thin air, he expected Yates to do exactly what the latter ultimately did. When Simpson was finally cut loose, he plunged hundreds of feet down into a crevice, landing on a ledge. When he regained consciousness, howling winds and depth of his location assured that his frantic signals to Yates went unheeded. Exhausted, out of water and unable to stand because of the shattered bone that had now been driven into his upper leg, Simpson did the unthinkable-he crawled even farther down into his icy prison, finding a shaft with an incline gentle enough to permit him to reach the surface.

Despite the fact the audience knows of their ultimate survival, this "as told in flashback" story becomes absolutely riveting; astounding location photography, an eerily atmospheric soundtrack and brilliant makeup deliver the full impact of this harrowing experience, viscerally demonstrating both the danger and suffering involved. You simply can't help but squirm at what these two endured.

That sense of astonished participation is compounded by the laconic manner in which the real climbers recount their ordeal--with typical low-key depreciation, they share the thoughts each experienced with a matter-of-factness that belies the extraordinary feat they accomplished.

Touching the Void is a mountaineering story without parallel; stunningly filmed and told with the kind of professional detachment that only enhances its impact. Scottish director Kevin MacDonald also directed A Day In September, the riveting and tragic story of the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He delivers an even more complex structure here than that employed in his earlier film. Mixing fact with recreated events is a very tricky business, but the director's transitions between personal recollection and vivid re-enactment are flawless. You may never want to hike again after seeing this movie, but you'll be absolutely spellbound, from icy opening to stunning denouement.

 One final observation: don't wait for its release on DVD or tape--Void should be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.  

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