Touching the Void
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Narrated by Joe Simpson, Simon Yates. Starring Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron. (2004, NR, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 20, 2004
Touching the Void might have been the ultimate example of a cliffhanger narrative were it not for the fact that we already know at the outset how the movie is going to turn out, since both participants are present to tell the tale. The story is based on the amazing but true events that occurred to Joe Simpson and Simon Yates (recounted in Simpson’s book of the same title) when in 1985 they decided to climb the near-vertical west face of the 21,000-foot-high Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They were two confident and able young Brits ready to conquer a mountain whose summit had never been successfully scaled by human beings. They made the climb Alpine-style, tethered to each other while carrying all their equipment through every stage of the trek. Simpson and Yates succeeded in making it to the top; it was on the way down that their troubles occurred. Blinded by snowstorms and snow drifts that obscured hidden crevasses, Simpson took a disastrous fall that broke his leg, painfully driving his shin bone into his kneecap. Still, the pair persevered as Yates lowered Simpson down the mountain with their rope, slowly lowering themselves one 300-foot-length of rope at a time before repeating the process. Crisis struck again when Simpson was caught dangling over a precipice, unable to signal to Yates by tugging on the rope and stuck out of earshot due to the snowstorm. With no means of knowing Simpson’s situation on the other end, Yates was forced to decide whether to remain tethered and eventually suffer the same fate as Simpson or cut the cord and save his own life. That’s where the heart of this movie lies. Filmmaker Macdonald (who received an Oscar for his documentary on the Munich Olympics, Four Days in September) is interested in the emotional strength required to perform such a deed and the survival instinct and know-how that guided the atheistic Simpson to ultimate safety. The question becomes this: With a story so riveting, how is it that the filmmakers blew it? Not completely – the movie will be of immense interest to climbers and fans of adventure dramas. But as a quasi-documentary, the film relies too heavily on re-enactments by actors Mackey and Aaron as Simpson and Yates, while Simpson and Yates separately tell their tales to the camera. There is a lot of redundancy in their individual narrations, leaving the viewer to think there had to have been a more efficient way of telling this story. Their native British reserve also keeps their stories low-key and devoid of any heroic gusto or narrative crescendo. The actors in the re-enactments have no dialogue and use stunt doubles to perform the climbing shots. My general aversion to documentary re-enactments is reinforced by Touching the Void, as the restaging adds little to our understanding of this story. And maybe I’m just being a stubborn flatlander here, but I never felt the movie adequately addressed the question all nonclimbers have: Why do it? Without really understanding what drove these two men to attempt the risky climb in the first place, it’s hard to extend the requisite sympathy for their plight. A void was definitely touched in this movie, and it was inside me.