(Originally posted on 3/6/04)
After four days of vigorously attempting to reach the bottom of Peru’s treacherous 21,000-foot tall Siula Grande, skilled mountain climber Joe Simpson returns to base camp with a blackened, frostbitten face camouflaged by streaks of blood, dirt, and saliva. His hollow eyes turned skyward in a look of exhausted disbelief and confusion, Simpson (as portrayed by actor Brendan Mackey) strikingly resembles Martin Sheen after he had emerged from a pool of mud in Apocalypse Now, and the subtle visual allusion is right on target. Just as with Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam epic, Kevin MacDonald’s taut, terrifying Touching the Void -- the gripping true tale of Simpson and fellow mountaineer Simon Yates’ fateful 1985 attempt to scale, and then escape, the precipitous Peruvian peak -- is, at heart, about a primal war waged by man against both himself and the natural world that surrounds him.
In the colossal Siula Grande, MacDonald has a menacing behemoth for his real-life horror story. Coated in silken white snow that masks a scraggly rock-and-ice exterior, the Siula Grande towers above its mountain range brethren, piercing the sky’s pillowy cloud cover like a blunt needle tearing through skin. It’s an unforgiving enemy for the young and reckless Simpson and Yates, who unwisely interpret the mountain’s undefeated record against intrepid climbers as a worthy challenge. After a successful lightening-quick charge up to Siula Grande’s summit, the cocky adventurers learn first-hand why “Eighty percent of accidents happen upon descent” when Simpson shatters his leg and Yates (played by Nicholas Aaron), in a controversial decision, is forced to abandon his friend in order to survive. The remainder of the film details their immense struggle to stay alive -- while separated from one another -- on their way back down the mountain’s hazardous façade.
Unlike One Day in September, his sterling 2000 documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis, MacDonald has no actual footage of the pivotal events, and thus depicts the action (based on Simpson’s book of the same name) by marrying extensive interview clips of Simpson and Yates to staged dramatizations of their perilous plight. Just as the solitary rope binding the men to each other functions as both an umbilical cord and (when Simpson finds himself dangling over a mountain ledge) a noose, this docudrama approach is something of a double-edged sword. The reenactments, bolstered by dizzying camera work that places us right up against Siula Grande’s frighteningly steep vertical face, allow us to experience the story on a visceral, immediate level. Yet the film’s primary illusion is eventually unsustainable -- the contrast between the real Simpson and Yates and their look-alike actors becomes more distractingly pronounced as the story progresses -- and the participation of both climbers in post-ordeal interviews sabotages a good deal of the final act’s tension and surprise.
Still, Touching the Void’s austere portrayal of man’s inextricable opposition to, and interdependence on, the natural world is seductively stark and powerful. The film is rife with symbiotic relationships -- between Simpson and Yates, between both men and the mountain (which they rely upon for shelter and water), and between MacDonald’s balancing act between documentary narration and dramatic recreation -- but it is the adversarial conflicts that are central and give the story its jagged, ominous muscularity. Simpson’s brutal four-day bout against the mountain exhibits the no-holds-barred, winner-take-all viciousness of a heavyweight title fight, and MacDonald’s compact direction ensures that every one of Simpson’s screams of pain and cries of despair packs a blood-curdling wallop. Ultimately, however, Simpson’s most stirring triumph comes against himself and the persistent, fiendishly alluring desire to give up and embrace a plush grave of downy snow and cold. Voraciously drinking from a muddy pool of melting snow on his final day on Siula Grande, Simpson temporarily chokes and, with a hint of disgust, spits his mouthful of water back into the ant hill-sized reservoir. The scene, of a broken man rejecting this final cruel blow from the mountain he both respects and despises, initially passes by without fanfare. But after learning at film’s conclusion that Simpson continues, to this day, to risk life and limb mountaineering, this defiant moment seems more and more like a gorgeously spartan exemplification of the human spirit’s tenacity.