Sundance Review: K2 doc 'The Summit' never quite peaks
A terrifying mountain-climbing story becomes a jumbled film
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Grad school degree and decade-plus of entertainment journalism aside, there are many film industry jobs that I must confess I don't completely understand.
I can tell a gaffer from a grip from a best boy, but I'm not sure I could explicate the role of the "writer" on a documentary film. In some cases, it's simple, I suppose. If there's a voice-over or on-screen text, I get that somebody writes that. I don't know, though, if a writer on a documentary has a role in shaping the storytelling approach. I don't know how a documentary writer comes to be associated with multiple films that aren't connected in subject matter, production or filmmaking team. What makes somebody a good "writer" on a documentary? And what makes somebody a bad writer on a documentary?
I suspect it varies and that sometimes a documentary writer is just the guy providing the text that isn't coming from talking heads and that sometimes it's a more involved role.
The nature of the documentary writer is one that I'm musing on today, because I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever noticed the same documentary writer's name recurring in a short span.
Mark Monroe wrote Marc Silver's "Who Is Dayani Cristal?," which I reviewed after its world premiere on Thursday (January 17) night at the Sundance Film Festival. And there was Mark Monroe's name on Nick Ryan's "The Summit," which is also in the World Documentary Competition here at Sundance.
Again: I don't know what Mark Monroe actually did on either "The Summit" or "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" Both documentaries are examples of fantastic stories at least somewhat undermined by the storytelling approach, though neither film is undone by voiceover or on-screen text, per se. So I'm guessing that Mark Monroe isn't to blame for anything I disliked in either film, but I still wanted to think out loud on this one, since it's not something I usually notice. [Monroe also was the credited writer on "The Cove," "The Tillman Story" and "Chasing Ice," all docs I put in the "Good story, well told" category. Whatever a writer on a documentary is, Monroe appears to be successful at it.]
But anyway... "The Summit." Full review after the break...
Directed by Nick Ryan, "The Summit" is the story of one of the most deadly expeditions in recent mountain-climbing history, an assault on Pakistan's K2 that left 11 climbers dead and countless unanswered questions.
Using a variety of narrative approaches, Ryan and his team attempt to cobble together what went so horribly wrong on the world's second highest mountain peak in August 2008. On paper, this is a gripping, horrifying and mystifying story, but a certain amount of snow-blindness ensues as Ryan can't quite decide on the correct approach to a tragedy that was preventable on an astounding number of levels. [I'll leave aside the ultimate level on which it was preventable: Not climbing mountains designed by nature to kill people. George Mallory was famously quoted as saying he wanted to climb Mt. Everest "Because it's there." One thing "The Summit" illustrates very well is that the compulsion to make these death-defying climbs goes far deeper than just mere physical presence.]
Ryan may ultimately have too many agendas, leading to a jumbled approach. "Agendas" may not be exactly the right word. Ryan wants his documentary to work on too many levels, which isn't the worst of crimes, but there's something to be said for having narrative clarity if you've got a good enough narrative to sustain. Ryan just happens to think he has at least four.
There's the traditional process of reconstruction. There was actual footage recorded by the 24 mountaineers in both the preparation and the actual attempt at the summit. There are still photos and then, of course, there are the survivors, many of whom talked with Ryan, even if they're still as unclear on what actually occurred as they were back in 2008. The heroic Pemba Gyalje Sherpa probably could have been a focus for his own documentary, as could widowed climber Cecilie Skog or Italian Marco Confortola, whose shifting version of events drew the bulk of early media coverage. Between the awe-inspiring photos of K2, the altitude-muddled recollections and the layered tragedy, a straight-forward documentary would have been the easy default and would have made for a great film.
Then there's the sentimentalized mystery surrounding one of the K2 victims. Ger McDonnell was only one of the 11 people who died, but the Irish climber's candid family, attractive American girlfriend and frequently filmed bonhomie make him a lamentable loss, even if it somehow seems to marginalize the other 10 casualties to concentrate so heavily on the other. Rather than being about an unfathomable tragedy of scope, a string of misadventures that claimed climbers from half-a-dozen nations, "The Summit" attempts for a misjudged intimacy that left me cold.
Then there's Ryan's attempt to simultaneously play detective and also make "The Summit" into a thriller by staging recreations. Of all of the approaches Ryan takes, this was the one I found least successful. I'd like to leave aside the inevitability that by delving into recreations, Ryan forces fans of the genre to put "The Summit" in direct and unflattering comparison with Kevin MacDonald's "Touching the Void." A bigger issue is that with a 24 person expedition, there are too many people involved for a recreation to be even slightly illuminating. Throw in thick winter clothing, goggles and, for a long stretch, nighttime and you're left with a lot of unidentifiable dots on a vast mountain. There isn't a single story-point mentioned by the talking heads that becomes clearer when re-staged and if reenacting doesn't make things clearer, that game definitely isn't worth the candle.
The final approach Ryan uses is one I'm betting I'll have a minority opinion on, but I loved Italian climber Walter Bonatti's counter-narrative about the 1954 expedition that became the first to summit K2. Ryan's struggling to find the right way to put what happened in 2008 in perspective and Bonatti, interviewed shortly before his own death, remembers his proximity to one of mountaineering's greatest moments, but also bitterly remembers the conflicted accounts that left him with a truth only known by the mountain itself. Some people will find Bonatti's segments to be chronologically digressive and they'll be right, but I also found them thematically on point.
My HitFix colleagues are seeing most of the narrative films at Sundance and I'm a bit jealous, because they're getting to see the star-making performances and the early Oscar favorites. But I'm not really jealous because what I love about documentaries is that even a film as flawed as "The Summit" still makes for intriguing, thoughtful viewing in the moment. I may be giving "The Summit" a B-, but I know this is a doc many people will love. [On a tangential note, I gave "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" a B- last night and, with 24-plus hours to muse, it deserved lower than that, perhaps all the way down to a C. We see between 2 and 5 movies per day at Sundance and you can never predict which movies will linger and which will vanish.]