‘Meru,’ with Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk. Directed by Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi. Three renowned climbers navigate nature’s harshest elements and their own complicated inner demons to ascend Mount Meru, the most technically complicated and dangerous peak in the Himalayas. 1 hr, 27 min. Rated R for language. Released Aug. 14, 2015.
In the big picture, “Meru,” directed by Jimmy Chin and his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, is a story about the growth of technology, physical capacity and the imagination and striving of men and women converging to produce some boom times for climbing movies, particularly documentaries.
The story of three men – Chin, an even more renowned climber in Conrad Anker, and plenty-to-prove newcomer Renan Ozturk – who overcome huge obstacles and push themselves to the limit of physical capacity is compelling enough and has enough twists to be a scripted movie.
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What confers the movie-making edge is the relentlessly stunning and voyeuristic footage, mostly produced by Chin, one of the pioneers of modern adventure photography. With a narrative arc that starts before the dawn of the narcissism-fueled age of the selfie, the camera manages to be everywhere and capture everything it needs to tell the story. For documentarians, missing a shot means either navigating around that part of the tale, or recreating or explaining it, usually in awkward fashion. “Meru” has none of that.
With valuable contributions from Ozturk, Chin provides the sweeping landscapes typical of climbing and extreme-sports films. What’s atypical is climbing footage that is so substantive and gripping to be vertigo-inducing. “Meru” provides puts-you-right-there footage, swinging along with the trio in a portaledge tent or dangling from an icy granite wall 21,000 feet above the sacred Ganges River in Northern India.
Chin is a trailblazing adventure sports photographer. The second generation Chinese-American from southern Minnesota not only has top-flight chops as an artist and photographer, he’s also one of the world’s top sportsmen, having climbed and skied off Mount Everest as well as having made many first ascents of big walls and alpine towers around the world. That combination has led to his making many near-iconic climbing pictures in publications such as National Geographic and Outside that have mirrored and paralleled the rise to mainstream stardom of climbers like Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell.
The evolution of high-definition video in DSLR camera bodies, and smaller and lighter recording equipment, provides an apt portal for Chin, and he can be unhesitant in adding his gear to the 200 pounds being lugged 20,000 feet up sheer, icy walls while pummeled by snow and howling winds. If you’ve been following the work of, say, Sender Films, producers of the excellent climbing doc, “Valley Uprising” (2014), you know the ante of extreme-sports video has been upped considerably. In the hand’s of a pro’s pro like Chin, the genre goes all in.
Author and climber Jon Krakauer gets significant screen time but, because of the depth of the footage, his is not a fill-in-the blanks role. It’s more like that of a sports-booth commentator, adding context, shading and even some objective judgment. After all, if the viewer does not significantly partake of adventure sports, he or she is going to constantly ask, “Are they nuts?” And Krakauer appears on cue to supply the answers, usually, “Yes, they are!”
To those who cannot reconcile the compulsion to risk life, limb and legacy, the nuttiest might be Anker, who anchors the story. The Bozeman, Mt., resident may be best known for discovering the body of George Mallory, the preeminent Everest explorer of the 1920s, but he is also is one of the world’s most skilled alpinists and has a unique personal story. Anker also is the reason the three first try the virtually unscalable Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru in 2008, fail 100 meters of the summit, then muster the gumption to try again in 2011. He leads Chin and Ozturk, who hails from Boulder, Colo., on a harrowing journey that they survive on the strength of their shared determination, loyalty and trust.
Alas, “Meru” is not just a beauty pageant of stunning images. It is a reflection on human will and relationships that is amplified by the footage. All good films prompt viewers to experience story as truth; the sum of “Meru” can be so powerful, it almost requires a suspension of disbelief to recognize the irrefutable truth of its story.