Touching a terrific Void

Feb. 10, 2004, midnight | By John Visclosky | 16 years, 11 months ago

The highest height from which the average person has fallen peaks somewhere within the range of 25-30 feet, and that's usually off a diving board. British mountain climber Joe Simpson fell for 300 meters into a crevice of ice back in June 1985, shattering most of his legs. And that was all before he dragged himself down a mountain.

Nineteen years ago British climbers Simpson and friend Simon Yates became the first people to ascend the 21,000-foot high peak of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Not only that, but they also chose one of the most dangerous approach routes, the almost sheer 90 degree west face of the mountain. With an extra helper watching base camp, the two men succeeded in climbing to the mountain's peak, though on the descent Simpson broke his leg. The plan then became for Yates to lower the wounded Simpson on a rope for 300 meters. When Simpson went over an overhang and threatened to drag Yates to his death, Yates chose to cut Simpson free. Believing his friend dead, Yates returned to base camp and prepared to leave, unaware that Simpson was dragging himself down the face of the mountain to base camp.

The engrossing documentary Touching The Void combines interviews with Yates and Simpson with reenactment footage of the latter's survival. Not so much a film about bonding and comradeship (Yates did, after all, cut Simpson loose), but more a testament to the wrenching and insatiable human need for survival, Touching The Void is as exciting as it is aesthetically beautiful.

Like Apollo 13, the whole story of the documentary has been widely publicized and broadcast, including the tale's ending. Like Ron Howard's widely celebrated film, Kevin Macdonald, the director of the documentary, faces the problem of making a story whose ending is already known exciting and tense. And does he ever. The reenactment footage is superb and stunning, quite as good as anything ever shot for Cliffhanger.

What is perhaps most exciting about the film is the interview with Simpson. Part of what made American Splendor such a superb experience for most people was a having a running narrative commentary by real-life comic book writer Harvey Pekar. To hear Simpson tell of his own story of brutal survival with what appears to be a great degree of honesty and semi-humility is very nice. The lucky guy seems happy to be alive, and at least now he can tell his grandkids that, in addition to climbing one of the world's most dangerous mountains, falling 300 meters, breaking his legs, and dragging himself over a period of days back to base camp, that he was also in a movie once.

Though it could never be as exciting as the real-life tale that spawned it, Touching The Void is about as good as documentaries get. Michael Moore better watch himself.

Touching The Void is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

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John Visclosky. John Visclosky is, suffice it to say, "hardly the sharpest intellectual tool in the shed," which is why he has stupidly chosen to here address himself in the third person. He's a mellow sort of guy who enjoys movies and sharing his feelings and innermost … More »

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