“He might as well be on the Moon,” says Keira Knightley towards the end of “Everest”, a recreation of the savage storm that left eight climbers dead on the side of Mount Everest in 1996. The director, Baltasar Kormákur, has named his film well. It stars Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson and Knightley, among others, but the real star is Everest herself, all 29,029 implacable feet of her. Kormákur pays particular attention to the conditions above 26,000 feet – the “death zone”, in which the human body literally starts to die. Such is the immersive experience of the film, as well as the schooling it gives on the effects of high altitude, that when the climbers start spontaneously bleeding, or tearing their clothes off, mistakenly thinking that they are overheating, you simply nod sagely: cerebral oedema. And when one of them slumps, unable to walk any farther, you are practically screaming at his companions: leave him.
It’s not often cinema arouses such sentiments. We like our notions of heroism to bring a lump to the throat, and what does that best is selflessness under duress: George Clooney cutting himself loose to save Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”, Bogart giving his letters of transit to Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid in “Casablanca”. But above 26,000 feet, the heroism cuts as thin as the air. To stop walking, or to help the weak, is in effect to commit suicide. I’m not sure that such news will endear the film to a mass audience. Those coming to “Everest” expecting a starring role for the Rock, preferably using his abdominals as a trampoline for falling boulders, will leave frustrated. American cinema rejoices in the spectacle of ordinary people performing in extraordinary circumstances. Kormákur’s film hints at a more uncomfortable truth: the closer to the abyss we draw, the more unfamiliar to ourselves we get.
A similar air of frost-bitten extremity hovered over Joe Carnahan’s unsung minor classic “The Grey” (2011). Ostensibly another Neesploitation thriller starring Liam Neeson as an oilman stranded in Alaska fighting off wolves, it was raised by Carnahan to a level of wind-chapped fatalism worthy of Jack London. In one scene, a man simply sits down in the snow, unable to walk any farther. An indescribable look passes between him and Neeson, before Neeson moves on. The man is as good as dead. The late-night Saturday audience I saw the film with absorbed the scene in rapt silence, much as you might receive a medical diagnosis. We’ve seen so many people die at the movies but rarely have we seen it like that — a capitulation as soft as an exhaled breath. Would you give up like that? Or would you push on? How do you know?
This is a humbling lesson for cinema to relay, for it is built on the opposite promise – of vicariousness, the idea that you can slip in and out of other people’s experience like a pair of slippers. Ever since the Lumières planted their first audiences in front of an advancing train, the movies have delighted in dangling us in harm’s way, before whisking us to safety in the nick of time. And it is in this cradle that our cinematic notions of heroism – the athletic, bantam-chested heroism of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn – first flourished. It’s hard to watch such performances now without a smirk: it seems like child’s play, boys being boys. Of the generation with one foot in the silent era, only Bogart had a significant career post-war, probably because the war allowed everyone else to catch up with him. People now felt as Bogart looked: battle-tested, weary but resilient. He swatted guns from men’s hands as if relieving them of a toy they shouldn’t be playing with.
It is Bogart’s stoicism – that blend of stubbornness and rue, seasoned with bourbon and Chesterfield cigarettes – that endears him to us still, even as our culture endlessly promotes superheroics over plain old heroism. When was the last time you looked at someone on screen and thought: that’s how I hope I would act in such a situation? Tom Hanks brought off a fine show of grace under pressure in “Captain Phillips”, even as you suspected that the real-life Phillips was more of a sonofabitch than Hanks was willing to admit. He capped it with that marvellous scene – improvised at the last minute – in which Phillips dissolves into tears while being tended to by a medic. Hanks has a way of suggesting the physiological basis of tears — they’re almost an involuntary physical reaction, surprising him and us, his face twisted in a three-way fight between the woman’s kindness, his male pride and the pent-up needs of his brutalised system. That’s Hanks for you: Jimmy Stewart in the era of PTSD.
Bradley Cooper did subtle work in “American Sniper”, even as controversy twisted his character into a righteous avenging angel for Fox News-watching America. Clint Eastwood’s film satisfied a clear public hunger for a Sergeant York in a war otherwise lacking a clear front line, against an enemy more readily tackled by long-distance drone. If we are as obsessed with survival as Hollywood thinks — with “Everest” followed by Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”, in which Matt Damon struggles to survive on Mars, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant”, in which Leonardo DiCaprio survives bears, betrayal and 3,000 miles of open prairie land — it may be because, as Steven Pinker has said, “we live in the safest time ever to be a human being.” The number of wars, genocides, homicides and sexual assaults is dropping worldwide. Even our wars are fought by remote control. Only at the movies does our taste for danger play out, much as a dad might furtively give his tummy flab a squeeze when nobody is in the room.
Everest opens in Britain Sept 18th, America Sept 25th