Harrowing and ultimately moving, “Meru” charts the efforts of three of the world’s best mountain climbers to conquer an “impossible” Himalayan peak that has never been successfully scaled before. There’s no lack of high drama here, with some of the most hair-raising developments taking place between the trio’s attempts to climb the titular pinnacle. Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s Sundance audience award winner is one of the best sports documentaries of its type in recent years, with the potential to break out beyond extreme-sports enthusiasts to a broader demo. Music Box plans an early August theatrical launch, while Showtime has picked up U.S. broadcast rights; other territories should follow suit.
The “Shark’s Fin” on Mount Meru in northern India is a Holy Grail for big wall climbers, as it offers virtually every possible challenge, requiring heavy gear be hauled up its 20,000-plus-foot height to cope with the various obstacles — and no sherpas will sign on to do the schlepping, as they do on Everest. It had been attempted numerous times, but each effort failed to reach the summit. That provides an irresistible lure to Conrad Anker, a celebrated middle-aged climber who breaks a promise to wife Jenni (the widow of his late climbing partner Alex Lowe) that he is done with major, high-risk expeditions. He assembles as teammates two younger men: Chin, with whom he’s frequently mounted peaks, and Renan Ozturk, another American whose climbing exploits caught his eye, and who is new to both of them.
Their 2008 trip, which occupies roughly the pic’s first half, is a nail-biter. Ascending with fuel and food for seven days, they’re caught in a snowstorm for four, the climb dragging on nearly three times its anticipated length as they cope with other hurdles (not least among them temperatures that sink to a limb-numbing 20 below zero). One hundred meters short of the summit, they’re forced to turn back, like others before them. “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be climbed,” Chin muses, in a moment of sanity. But the “possessed” Anker can’t let it go. Three years later the trio return to Meru — and that’s despite a couple of near-fatal accidents that have left two of them severely traumatized physically and psychologically.
One might expect such obsessive need to conquer would come wrapped in a certain amount of egotistical hubris. But from all the evidence here, Anker, Chin and Ozturk are ingratiating, mild-mannered fellows, good-humored under the most stressful circumstances, and touchingly devoted to their mutual friendship. (However, we also hear from the women in their lives, who are sometimes less than thrilled by their menfolk’s compulsive risk taking.) It’s telling that when the trio finally come within reach of their ultimate goal, one member simply defers to another in allowing him to grab the first-to-summit glory.
While you might well leave “Meru” thinking it requires a degree of craziness to undertake such perilous task s —the protagonists admit some willingness to risk death is necessary — their personalities are nonetheless so relatable that the docu sports an unusually high degree of emotional involvement for an extreme-sports chronicle. (Its only misstep is an overblown ballad by Andra Day under the closing credits, which hammers home the “triumph of the human spirit” tenor the pic has hitherto earned rather than flaunted.) “Into Thin Air” author and climbing enthusiast Jon Krakauer is essentially the lead talking-head storyteller here, providing some contextual glue as well as insight into his friends’ sometimes outwardly baffling, neck-risking decisions.
A making-of would be almost equally fascinating, as it beggars belief that pro sports cinematographers Chin and Ozturk actually shot most of the film while in the midst of this “impossible climb.” (Some additional lensers contributed to other sequences.) All tech contributions are first-rate, not least Bob Eisenhardt’s expert editing of a potentially ungainly three-part narrative structure.