- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

There are some stories that don’t ask much of filmmakers. The average person can appreciate them as much as the aesthete. There are no gaps of context or holes in the historical record.

So, the best a director can do is get out of the way, avoid trivialization and sentimentality, and let the story proceed without overmuch fuss.

Think of Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” or Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men”: You enjoyed the ride no less for knowing the ending in advance.

Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void,” a documentary-dramatization hybrid about Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ near- fatal descent in 1985 from the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes, tells one of those simple, wrenching stories.

In a nutshell, it’s this: A guy with a severely broken leg crawls down a 21,000-foot mountain, enduring subzero temperatures, frostbite and dementia, negotiating perilous vertical slopes and unsound glaciers, with no food or water and no hope of communication with the outside world.

Harrowing enough for you?

By all rights, Mr. Simpson should’ve died. Instead, he lived to write a book about it. And Mr. Macdonald, last seen trailing Mick Jagger for a 2001 TV documentary about the rock star’s daily life, adapts the yarn into a tricky format that combines in-person interviews and a medium that can often, but doesn’t here, spell doom: historical re-enactments.

Mr. Simpson and his then-climbing partner Mr. Yates are here in the present, in a brightly lit, climate-controlled studio; their fictional stand-ins, Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron respectively, are filmed mountaineering in the Alps (the crew also captured establishing shots of Siula Grande itself).

Together, these parallel strands form a finely tuned drama that grips firmly while glossing over, as best it can, the impossibility of truly re-creating the world as it looked to Mr. Simpson and Mr. Yates 19 years ago.

Mr. Yates tells us that mountaineering is a way to escape the “clutter” and “humdrum” of modern life. After looking the alternative — the eponymous existential void — in the maw, clutter and humdrum probably never sounded so good.

After reaching the summit and embracing in their joint accomplishment, Siula Grande had never been conquered before, the roped-together duo began their descent where another climber, Richard Hawking, was waiting at the base camp. (Mr. Hawking contributes here, too, and brings a bloodless sense of humor to the film.)

When Mr. Simpson tumbled down a steep sheet of ice and broke several bones in his right leg — the lower bone pushed clear through his knee joint — Mr. Yates attempted a daring rescue. With their combined rope length, he lowered his crippled partner 300 feet at time. It worked well enough, until Mr. Simpson slid over a precipice.

Thus, Mr. Yates had a choice: Cut the rope and survive, or follow his partner over the same cliff, whereby they both die. Controversially, he chose the former, and it’s at this point that “Void” becomes a one-man show starring Mr. Simpson.

It helps, it chills, actually, that Mr. Simpson is so well-spoken (he correctly employs the past participle of “lie,” for crying out loud) when he recounts his story with an unblinking composure and an almost eerie logic.

Here he was, at death’s door. He’d fallen into a crevasse the size of a cathedral dome. What was his motivation for continuing? Atheism. With no comforting hope of an afterlife, he pushed the outer limits of his spirit and pressed on, against long odds and excruciating pain. Back at the base camp, Mr. Yates and Mr. Hawking had all but given up on seeing Mr. Simpson again, burning his spare clothes in a farewell ritual.

Apparently, there are atheists in foxholes.


TITLE: “Touching the Void”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Profanity; themes of dread)

CREDITS: Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Produced by John Smithson. Co-produced by Sue Summers. Based on the book by Joe Simpson. Cinematography by Mike Eley. Music by Alex Heffes.

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes.


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