Touching the Void (United Kingdom, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction… and also potentially more nail-biting and harder to believe. Touching the Void is an extreme example of this - a man versus nature epic so amazing that, if it was presented in a strictly narrative format, viewers would doubt its veracity. To capture this story in a way that would do it justice, British filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (the documentarian responsible for One Day in September, about the terrorist attack on the 1972 Israeli Olympic team in Munich) has blended elements of docudrama and documentary into a satisfying whole that will keep even the most stoic movie-goer gripping the armrest throughout.

The tale of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates is about as inspirational as stories come - an exhibition of human courage and the ability to endure in the most extreme circumstances. And, for those of us (like me) who have never attempted anything more challenging that casual rock-climbing, it serves as a dramatic warning of what can happen when things go wrong. In June of 1985, Joe and Simon were cocky twentysomethings in search of adventure. The challenge they eventually settled on was to climb the previously unscaled western face of Siula Grande, a 21,000 peak in the Peruvian Andes. ("The last big mountain face in [the] range of mountains that hadn't been climbed.") With the two tied together, the trip to the top took three days and passed mostly without incident. But, on the way down, Joe lost his footing, fell, and shattered his leg, breaking the fibula and driving it up through his kneecap. For a while, Simon attempted to stay with Joe, lowering him in 300-foot increments by using two 150-foot ropes tied together. But, when a series of misfortunes convinced Simon that Joe might be dead and that he might soon follow, he was forced to cut the rope that was the injured man's lifeline. Incredibly, both men made it alive to the bottom. (This isn't giving away anything, since Joe and Simon appear on screen throughout the film to narrate it.)

Touching the Void isn't a documentary, because it employs extensive re-creation footage (filmed on location in the Andes), and it isn't a narrative because of Joe and Simon's talking-heads narration. With their faces hidden beneath stubble and the ravages of the cold, it's difficult to determine whether actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron look like Joe and Simon, but it doesn't take long for suspension of disbelief to kick in with a vengeance. In fact, the recreations are done so well that we often forget we're not watching a filmed chronicle of events - although it's obvious that no cameras were observing Joe's struggles to escape from a gargantuan crevasse. (In an ironic twist, Joe and Simon doubled for the actors in medium and long-range shots. So, in effect, the real-life characters were substituting for the actors who were playing them.)

Watching Touching the Void is an exhausting experience. The stunning photography at first overwhelms us with the enormity of the mens' challenge, then displays the ferocity of Mother Nature at her cruelest as zero-visibility snowstorms drive the temperatures to bone-chilling levels. But the story and pacing are what make this a white-knuckle experience, ratcheting up the tension degree by degree as the men relate their innermost thoughts while we watch in awe as they overcome odds that would make even the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team's win over the U.S.S.R. seem like a sure thing. The suspense isn't about whether Joe and Simon survive, but about how they do it.

A common World War I saying is that there are no atheists in fox holes. Joe disproves this notion. Facing sure death, and convinced that his lifespan could be measured in hours and minutes, Joe did not turn to the Catholicism of his youth. As far as he was concerned, all that awaited him was an endless void, and it was luck and perseverance, not a miracle, that saved him. (We do not know Simon's thoughts on religion, but we can infer from his statements that he put no more trust in God than his partner.)

Many movies, both features and documentaries, have been made about the perils of mountain climbing (and its close kin, polar exploration). None has been as gripping and harrowing as Touching the Void, not even the amazing The Endurance (about Shackleton's 1914-16 failed Antarctic expedition). Macdonald's approach to the subject is perfect; it's doubtful that Touching the Void would have been as tense had it been a pure documentary, nor would it have been as compelling if made as a "based on a true story" feature, no matter how good the production values had been. (At one point, Hollywood had this story on its radar, with Tom Cruise attached to play Joe.) Joe and Simon's narration is crucial to the movie's success; it adds a layer that could not otherwise have been achieved. And the re-creation allows us to see, not just imagine, the ordeal.

Few films can legitimately be considered "experiences," and, in that select population, even fewer are rooted in reality. Admittedly, Touching the Void would not have been as engrossing had Joe and Simon not been people we could see and hear. As we watch their odyssey unfold, the same question will occur to nearly everyone: in their position, could I do what they did? Hopefully, none of us will have to find out. But for Joe and Simon, the love of climbing overcame their horrific memories. Two years and six operations after breaking his leg, Joe was once again back doing what he loves most and, in his own words, "lives for."

Touching the Void (United Kingdom, 2003)

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, Richard Hawking
Screenplay: Joe Simpson
Cinematography: Mike Eley
Music: Alex Heffes
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1