There exists an undeniable safety in the knowledge that certain things will never happen. George Lucas will never require government assistance. McDonald’s will never put a Filet O’ Condor Sandwich on its menu, not even in test markets. During a live televised car chase, Paul Moyer will never be moved to declare, “For the love of God, can’t we all just get a life already?” Oh, and one other thing: no critic will ever write that a National Geographic special is lousy. Because they simply never are.
Like a whisper struggling to crack through a din of sirens, NBC continues to run sweepstime National Geographic doc hours in between the biblical epics, the Rob Lowe thrillers and such pressing local news series as, “How do celebrities keep their figures on fire?” Indeed, the current National Geo entry –“Avalanche: The White Death” — shines like a beacon astride the typically contrived “event” programming that is the May sweeps norm.
If it seems difficult to fathom that an hour about avalanches could be much more than warmed-over Irwin Allen, guess again. Producer-director Barry Nye, who has placed his stamp of brilliance onto more than 50 National Geographic specials since 1975, does the franchise proud once again by crafting a piece that is at once beautiful, horrifying, disturbing and compelling. He and his crew masterfully turn avalanches into a chilling form of art via an impeccably packaged, spectacularly filmed collection of facts, images and very human stories.
Backed by Peter Coyote’s trademark dramatic narrative, “The White Death” goes to great lengths to convey the point that when it comes to avalanches, even seasoned outdoorsmen are reduced to morons. While we’re told there are definite avalanche precursors to watch for, rarely is anyone paying sufficient attention to much notice. The results can be deadly and are, at the very least, terrifying to endure.
There are an estimated 100,000 avalanches annually in the U.S., from Vermont to Alaska. They can be powdery or slab-like, dense or tightly-packed. All of them are accompanied by a massive roar and can crush and/or bury anything in their path. Most do not occur during blizzards but on gorgeous blue-sky days, when the sun causes the snowy wall to give way.
“The White Death” features a surprising number of video clips shot during actual disasters, including jaw-dropping footage of an avalanche thundering toward three veteran mountain climbers on Annapurna, Nepal, last year. The lensman actually briefly turned the camera on himself to record his final, shellshocked expression as the snow rumbled in his direction. But it would lose momentum and stop before enveloping him, and his two comrades were briefly buried but managed to escape unharmed.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at the doc, it is that the numerous reenactments are incorporated so seamlessly by photographer Richard Chisolm and his team that it’s often difficult to differentiate between the genuine and the ersatz. That is especially true in their recounting the story of Brian Sali, buried alive in January 1998 while snowboarding with two buddies and pulled barely breathing from his shallow snowy grave. The rescue effort is staged here in great detail as the participants recall the traumatic scene, and it’s a tad on the cheesy side.
The device is far more effective in augmenting the amazing tale of Lester Morlang of Silverton, Colo., caught in a blizzard-fueled avalanche in 1986 that forced him to dig his way out of three separate avalanches within hours of one another before his rescue.
If there is a lesson imparted from the extraordinary “The White Death,” it would be this: don’t move to Juneau, Alaska, a town nestled precariously at the foot of a mountain that’s quite clearly an avalanche waiting to happen. After witnessing this hour’s vivid illustrations of the sheer, raw power of this underestimated phenomenon, Juneau should in fact be off of anyone’s “Gotta go there” list forever.
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