Offering a Himalayan-sized metaphor about surmounting obstacles and realizing one’s dreams, “High Ground” finds easy inspiration in a group of wounded warriors from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, scaling a Nepalese peak and trying to leave self-doubt and memories behind. Part travelogue, part khaki-clad confessional, the docu has a compelling cast of characters but doesn’t ever ask them the really tough questions. As a result, helmer Michael Brown’s visually breathtaking film will have as tough a time finding a non-military aud as it does locating a genuine sense of redemption among its subjects.
Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to scale Everest, was on the team organized in 2010 by World Team Sport, a vets advocacy group, to bring 11 combat veterans up the 20,000-foot Mount Lobuche near Kathmandu. (Weihenmayer was also featured in Lucy Walker’s 2006 docu “Blindsight,” in which he helped bring a group of Tibetan teenagers on an Everest climb). In “High Ground,” however, the really prominent players are all veterans of the two wars, representing most branches of the military and various degrees and forms of combat injury.
Army specialist Steve Baskis, for instance, was blinded; Navy master-at-arms Nicolette Maroulis spent three years in a wheelchair; Army Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes lost a leg. Not every injury is explained or obvious: Ashley Crandall, who served as an Army National Guard mechanic, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after a sexual assault, and admitted having thoughts of suicide. Revelations by the soldiers regarding military health care generally — notably, at the now-shuttered Walter Reed Medical Center — are beyond scandalous.
As the climbers make their way up Mount Lobuche, and the viewer is treated to some spectacular vistas courtesy of Brown’s lensing, the film gains entry into the psyches of the soldiers. One recalls feeling like a “disposable razor” once his deployment was over; another tries to explain the sometimes antisocial behavior of military personnel who are trained for combat and then more or less turned loose onto a civilian population. Others argue that psychological damage can be as difficult to get past as physical injuries, despite being invisible and easily dismissed as weakness, at least by certain elements of an uninformed public.
What Brown never asks — perhaps because it would seem rude — is whether his subjects feel their sacrifice was worthwhile, or, for that matter, why they enlisted in the first place. Like many similar documentaries about soldiers and sailors who have served or were serving in the two conflicts, “High Ground” emphasizes the fierce sense of loyalty and camaraderie that exists among members of a given unit. Less well defined are their feelings toward their country, or toward a public that doesn’t seem all that involved in the matters for which they’ve put their lives on the line. It’s a large hole in the middle of a hopeful story, which would have been well served by a few more probing questions.
Tech credits are tops, notably Brown’s work as director-d.p.: He gets not only the mountains but also the kinds of smaller moments — an artificial leg punching a hole in the snow, for instance — that make the difference between mundane and memorable.