2015, R, 87 min. Directed by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 4, 2015
A remarkable documentary in its own right, the affecting Meru recounts the efforts of three American mountain climbers on two separate occasions (the first in 2008, the second in 2011) to ascend the harsh Mt. Meru Peak in northern India. Known as the Shark Fin, the mountain’s aptly named peak had proven insurmountable for most skilled mountaineers, an elusive Holy Grail in the world of big rocks. Two experienced and professionally connected climbing veterans, Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin, and a younger, less-seasoned climber, Renan Ozturk, comprised the team. Ozturk’s responsibilities entailed shooting film footage of the two expeditions, providing a valuable service for this fairly personalized film about the trust that’s built through friendship and how that bond can survive adversity. The three men’s individual and joint stories wondrously unfold, sometimes catching you off-guard with a couple of surprising turns that provide the movie with meatier drama than you might anticipate at the outset. (Think maybe Hands on a Hard Body or The King of Kong.) Getting to the top of the world isn’t easy, not to mention further complications that stack the odds against the ambitious trio.
By the looks of the credits, Meru is a family affair and group effort, meaning that most of the people affected by the two treks participated in the making of this film. (Some also double as talking heads, giving their on-camera perspectives regarding narrative elements.) That might explain why the movie hits you on a gut level, given that the participants had something at stake, something to lose. Ozturk’s cinematography is often spectacular, capturing breathtaking moments of snowy eloquence, and intimate ones of climbers performing tasks while dangling aside a mountain or from other places unthinkable for most of us.For most of us, it’s difficult to fathom why any sane person would risk his or her life to navigate crevices and footholds or rappel down a sheer cliff, all for the glory of achieving another pinnacle, both literal and figurative. Meru sheds some light on the ascenders’ fascination with the dangerous art of mountain climbing, though you will be dumbfounded by the choices of one, maybe two, of the team’s members when deciding whether to join the second expedition. (Suffice it to say: Snow and mountains can be a dangerous combination.) Undoubtedly, the reason is as plain as George Mallory’s comment: Because it’s there, because it’s there.