Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Touching the Void

Film: Touching the Void (2003)
Dir: Kevin Macdonald
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

True-life survival stories are always captivating. A lazy director could simply make a by-the-books documentary and still produce a tear-jerker. When Kevin Macdonald made Touching the Void, however, he constructed an amazing film using tense re-enactments, survivor interviews, and gorgeous cinematography. Prior to seeing this film, I knew the story of mountaineer Joe Simpson’s brush with death in the Andes, and it was interesting and inspiring. But this movie brings it to life with such intensity and emotion that it had me in tears within the first 25 minutes.

In 1985, two young British mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates dared to ascend the Siula Grande, a mountain in the Peruvian Andes that had never been successfully climbed. Amazingly, they make it 20,000+ feet up the mountain despite treacherous snow conditions. In a completely isolated part of Peru, thousands of feet up on a dangerous peak, the unthinkable happens – Joe breaks his leg. What follows is a series of unbelievable events as Simon risks his own life to save his friend, and Joe endures an unimaginable ordeal to stay alive. To say anything more would spoil 1.5 hours of beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching storytelling - and it’s all true.

Between interviews with the real Joe and Simon, there are replications of the events using actors and/or stuntmen. These scenes dominate the film, making it more of an action-drama than a traditional documentary. They are also the most realistic re-enactments I have ever seen. It feels like you are really there, watching the situation as it unfolds. These actors look like they are truly going through everything Joe and Simon did. The re-enactments are shot on a large mountain that easily doubles for Siula Grande. Many times, I found myself wondering, “How did they do that?!”at these amazing actors/stuntmen. It is very easy to forget this is not happening live.

Macdonald utilizes sound brilliantly to create tension and fear. Cracking ice, howling wind, and falling snow make it so the viewer can practically feel the frostbite. The music is also a huge part of why the film is so tense and occasionally horrifying. With hardly any dialogue, the music really carries the re-enactment portions of the film. The snowy landscapes and cinematography are breath-taking. We see everything from the epic span of the mountain to the tiniest details in the ice. I wish I could see Void in IMAX as it would be ideal for that medium.

Aside from the great filmmaking, this is just one fantastic story. It has so many amazing twists and turns that it’s hard to believe that it all really happened to someone. Not only is it your classic tale of survival against all odds, but it’s a moving story about friendship. What Simon did for his friend is courageous and few others would do the same. Furthermore, seeing the real Joe and Simon telling their story is great. They are both charismatic men with great personalities and they tell their story with complete honesty – even when it’s unflattering. The way Joe describes his ordeal is often so poetic and beautiful. I have not read his book on which this film is based, but having watched this, I have no doubt it must be a great read.

Touching the Void is a perfect transition between Kevin Macdonald’s early documentaries and his later narrative features (i.e., The Last King of Scotland) because it has the best aspects of each. This unique docu-drama style has the feel-good inspiration of a documentary with the thrills of a big-budget action flick. It grabs the viewer right from the start and its grip only gets tighter with each passing moment. Macdonald’s brilliant combination of two filmmaking styles, in addition to his solid skills as a director, has created an unforgettable testament to the power of friendship and to the strength of the human spirit.