There is a small faction of climbers for whom a mountain’s size and its supposedly un-ascendable conditions can prove to be the most tempting of challenges. The more demanding and dangerous the climb, theoretically, the greater the reward. Conrad Anker, the man who purportedly found George Mallory’s body near the peak of Everest in 1999 and has devoted his subsequent years to a series of almost unbelievably daunting expeditions, is one of these climbers. He must clearly believe that no journey is irresolvable, because what he puts himself and his crew through in “Meru” — a harrowing, gorgeous new doc directed by Anker’s fellow climbers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, about the first ever journey up Mount Meru, one of the milestones of big-wall climbing — would shake most of us puny mortals to our very core. This is a striking, clear-eyed, and expressive film, and also an occasionally problematic one. It’s one of the most visually ravishing documentaries to come down the pipe in recent memory, and a revealing look into the nothing-is-impossible ethos of the modern mountaineer.
When you see what Anker, Chin, and climbing partner Renan Ozturk expose themselves to over the course of their grueling trek — a laundry list of setbacks that includes frostbite, trenchfoot, a ghastly combination of the two, ice storms, and more — you begin to wonder why they even thought their quest was possible in the first place. It’s important to remember in this instance that Meru Peak is not really a mountain at all. It’s a wall, a featureless vertical monolith that towers 20,000 feet over the Ganges River. Before Anker and company, many climbers rightfully looked at the ascension of Meru as a potential suicide mission. No one had ever reportedly reached the top, so what chance did these men stand? What made Anker, Chin, and Ozturk think that this venture was even remotely feasible? The film attempts to unlock the fundamental question behind their quest and their compulsion to accomplish what was previously thought to be impossible. The result is a genuinely thrilling watch, even if the filmmakers can’t help but occasionally fall back on some of the more regrettable tropes in the documentary filmmaking playbook.
Chin and Vasarhelyi’s movie opens in earnest after a brief prologue where we see the fatigued faces of our three climbers during one of the most perilous stretches of their time together — three years prior to the first climb. Spending some time with our thrill-seeking heroes gives us the required degree of emotional investment we need in order to follow them on what will turn out to be a mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausting ramble. Anker is a familiar type: a Midwestern man’s man whose lovely wife only wishes that her husband would put aside his dreams of climbing and spend some quality time with his family. Chin is a warm, congenial presence (he allegedly did much of the filming as well) who is seen housing his sister and her two young children after the sister goes through an awful divorce. Of the central trio, Ozturk remains the most inscrutable, but also the most vulnerable (for reasons I won’t spoil for you here). He’s a restless traveler, someone who seemingly lives to get to the next challenge, but he’s also the most recognizably human of the three, and his physical frailties and the doubt he experiences about whether or not he can scale Meru, give the resulting film a great deal of its emotional heft.
The film is often stunning in its visual beauty: even if it were to be viewed on a small screen (although, let’s be real, this is one to see on a big screen if you can), the way “Meru” is shot will surely induce flights of vertigo-tinged anxiety in some viewers. When we see a tent hanging straight-up vertical on the side of the cliff, as our heroes hole themselves inside for four days while subsisting on a diet that consists of little more than cigarettes and granola, it’s hard not to feel somewhat shaken. Indeed, resources and food dwindle rather quickly on the journey to the peak of Meru. The climbers allegedly blew through about half of their food before they even reached the quarter-way mark of their trip — a rational person’s sign to turn back and call it a day. Anker and his team are practical people, but no rational person would attempt an undertaking like this. When Jimmy Chin jokes about having to eat his boot as he roasts a meager piece of what looks like cheese over a dinky portable camping stove, the laugh we get is a grim one. Even he doesn’t sound too sure if they’re going to make it — and he’s supposed to be the optimistic one. It becomes clear not too shortly after that these men aren’t just your garden variety extreme-sports enthusiasts. They are testing the limits of what their own bodies can bear, and, in doing so, testing their own mortality.
“Meru” is first and foremost a visceral experience. On those terms, it’s an unqualified success. There is a distressing, you-are-there quality in some of these scenes that makes your blood run cold. The most attempted (and most failed) landmark on Mount Meru is the Shark’s Fin peak, which, when we first see it, is exactly that — sharp, angular, jutting into the sky above, eliciting terror and fascination in equal measure. On a purely audio-visual level, it’s hard not to be wowed by the stunning potency of the film’s images. It’s slightly more problematic, however, as a hero-triumphing-over-adversity narrative. Which is not to say these men aren’t heroes in their own way – they are, even if they are also stubborn to a fault. But the psychology of the kind of warrior who would choose to take on such a overwhelming and formidable task remains curiously under-explored. We get to know these men only so much as we need to, never really penetrating the surface to see what kind of psychology compels a human being to scale an ice-coated, several-thousand-foot wall in sub-zero temperatures. Not helping matters is the overly bombastic music that almost ruins the film’s triumphant finale — a rare false note in an otherwise sturdy and assured doc. The film also employs standard talking-head interviews with the climbers themselves, with additional insight provided by “Into Thin Air” author Jon Krakauer, who knows this world — and the men who are drawn to it — well.
In the end, “Meru” is a flawed but deeply riveting account of what happens when men walk right up to the edge of madness. It works best as a visual spectacle, as an expansive reflection of what these men accomplished with this one impossible feat. Its insights are limited to what feels immediate and true, and we never come to know the central trio well enough beyond what the filmmakers have allowed us to see. But this pithy objection should not diminish the sheer scope of what Anker, Chin, and Ozturk have accomplished here. “Meru”, like its subject, is worthy of awe. [B+]