'Meru': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Immaculately mounted crowdpleaser peaks with a breathtaking denouement

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's mountaineering saga won Sundance's Audience Award in the documentary section.

A high-tech, high-octane, high-fiving addition to the venerable "mountain film" sub-genre, Meru is an engaging and cumulatively exhilarating debut from wife-and-husband team Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Chronicling the highly personable Chin's agonizing attempts to scale one of the world's cruelest summits — along with fellow elite-level daredevils Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturkthis gleamingly slick affair successfully caters both to extreme-sports devotees and also those who don't know their crampons from their pitons.

Winner of the documentary Audience Award at Sundance in January, the U.S.-India co-production has proven a predictably popular pick at nonfiction and general festivals in the interim. A winning combination of the gruelingly practical and the luminously cosmic, it's set for an international bow at Sheffield's Doc/Fest in June ahead of an Oscar-qualifying stateside theatrical run in August via distributor Music Box. Tube exposure will follow courtesy of Showtime, but such vertiginously spectacular Himalayan vistas obviously demand to be displayed on the biggest possible screens.

Indeed, seldom can any film come so close to transporting viewers to the roof of the world — here thanks to the lightweight digital cameras wielded by Chin and his compadres during their two assaults on the daunting-but-enticing Shark's Fin. Rearing some 20,700 feet above sea level, this jagged scream of snow-dappled stone was first attempted by Anker back in 2003. He returned in 2008 with Chin and Ozturk, but heavy storms delayed their progress, depleted their rations and forced the intrepid trio to reluctantly turn back within summit-sight.

The 2008 assault takes up a surprising amount of Meru's running time — a crafty structural ploy, one that (along with J. Ralph's rousingly manipulative score) leads the unsuspecting viewer to presume joyful triumph is the most likely outcome. The abortive conclusion therefore comes as quite a kick-in-the-teeth surprise. Three years and various unpredictable life-threatening mishaps later, the team reunites for one last crack at a seemingly impossible four-dimensional puzzle — one with lethal dangers lurking at almost every step.

The against-all-odds nature of the enterprise is repeatedly emphasized — to an almost wearisome degree. As the catalogue of hazards and "mega-risks" accumulates, many may well conclude that these particular mountaineers are more crazy and irresponsible than they are inspirational and admirable — not least because they're clearly so concerned not only with executing their feat but also simultaneously shooting as much footage as possible along the way.

In this sense, Meru is a revealingly 21st century artifact, encapsulating an era when deeds are only fully performed and validated once captured by technology and (digitally) disseminated. Another distinctly modern touch is the occasionally distracting ubiquity of sponsor logos throughout what amounts to product placement of a particularly classy stripe: "Special thanks to expedition sponsors North Face and Revo," reads a closing credit.

While the fact that the three men obviously survived to tell their tale — via conventionally framed talking-head interviews — necessarily lessens the suspense somewhat, there's no knocking the sheer infectious thrill delivered by the final sequences. Veteran Oscar-nominated editor Bob Eisenhardt's coup de grace comes at the very last moment, the picture coming to a bracingly abrupt halt very soon after its peak of supreme elation.

Any further commentary or analysis at this point would have been superfluous, notwithstanding the sterling contributions of best-selling author Jon Krakauer — whose own hazardous Himalayan exploits formed the basis of 1997 memoir Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster (out Sept. 25 from Working Title and Universal). Articulate and charismatic, Krakauer is a terrific value here due to his facility for putting the achievements of Anker and company into proper context using accessible but informed language. He provides the grounding that enables Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin to steadily soar.

Production company: Little Monster Films
Director-screenwriters: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Producers: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Shannon Ethridge
Executive producers: Daniel T. Reiner, Elizabeth Lauren Reiner, Jonas Tempel, Chris Wright, Loren Bough
Cinematographers: Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk
Editor: Bob Eisenhardt
Composer: J. Ralph
Sales: Submarine, New York

No Rating, 89 minutes