What drives a man to embark on the dangerous quest of climbing the most complicatedly vertiginous Himalayan peak in the world, all the while filling their loved ones with unimaginable emotional anxiety? It’s a fundamental question that Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Meru, a chronicle of three climbers’ enduring mission to conquer the titular mountain, is oddly disinterested in. Instead, Chin and Vasarhelyi prefer to focus on concretes: the discipline that such a mission requires, the angular shape and varied terrain of the mountain itself, the tragedies that befell the climbers in between their two expeditions, and the various forms of calculated and uncalculated risk involved in big wall climbing.
To the extent that the film does address the why, the answer comes down to the vague, unsatisfying rite-of-passage phenomenon. In talking heads that form the backbone of the narrative, climbers Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, and Chin himself (with a little substantiating assistance from zealous author Jon Krakauer and the climbers’ respective significant others) address a burning need to ascend steep precipices. “For me, it was worth the risk. It was worth possibly dying for,” says Renan while reflecting on a brain artery complication that put him at a higher risk of altitude sickness—the kind of minor setback that can throw off an entire climb—during the team’s second effort. That such valiant proclamations are repeatedly left dangling without substantial investigation into the athletes’ motivating rationale or their processes of weighing checks and balances gives Meru the whiff of a ludicrous superhero movie, one that valorizes physical tenacity and raw determination without challenging the psychological engines that make this seemingly superhuman behavior go.
It proves most inadequate when the team ascends the final pitch to the top after years of preparation in no more than a minute of screen time.
Experiential specificity might have picked up the slack left by these missing psychological nuances, but even this detail is skimped by the movie’s fragile, built-in-post construction. Granted, this is the case for an undoubtedly insurmountable logistical reason, as a professional film crew couldn’t have tagged along with the athletes. Thus, to fault Meru on aesthetic grounds in lieu of the fact that two of its makers—Chin and Ozturk are credited for gathering footage—were balancing directorial and cinematographic duties with risking their lives on a surface perpendicular to flat ground is admittedly a perverse display of high standards. Surely, praise is beyond deserved just for the sheer will of Chin and Ozturk’s impractical feat of vérité.
And yet, it’s hard to deny crucial shortcomings in Meru’s depiction of big wall climbing. The climbers’ DSLR and GoPro footage, which mixes with stock shots to form the bulk of the film’s on-location imagery, fails to clarify just how they root themselves to the face of the cliff at any given moment, yet ropes and clamps constantly extend from their bodies like spider-web lifelines. Moreover, to anyone unfamiliar with this sport, the makeshift hanging outpost known as a portaledge that the mountaineers fashion for resting periods will likely come across as a minor miracle, yet Meru never reveals the process of how this precarious tent is secured to the wall—to say nothing of the fact that its assembly is being accomplished via frozen fingers and frostbitten faces.
What we’re left with is a running commentary stating that such and such happened, they built this or that, they scaled this many feet, they felt nervous or invigorated—all things that a dramatic production, with its many luxuries, would be able to give life to. Meru’s expositional crutch proves most inadequate when the team ascends the final pitch to the top after years of preparation in no more than a minute of screen time, after which Chin captures a few tear-filled hugs and some banal verbalizations of satisfaction. Of course, none of this is to imply that there’s any disingenuous movie fabrication going on here, that these climbers didn’t experience great extremes of hardship and ecstasy in following their dream. Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk climbed Meru, base to peak, and that’s a mind-blowing example of mental, emotional, and athletic excellence. But a great film would explore the driving force behind that excellence, the moment-to-moment elemental challenges it poses, and the very real repercussions, external as well as internal, of pursuing it.