The Summit ★★½

The Summit attempts to recount a harrowing experience in what we’re told is the most tragic event in modern mountaineering.

Technically, it achieves what it sets out to do with an impressive set of storytelling tools: interviews with survivors, actual footage and photography from the expedition, beautiful and believable recreations of pivotal moments, and even archival footage of the first 1950s Italian ascent alongside interviews with one of the surviving team members. But these tools are so haphazardly structured that a fairly straight-forward series of events with a defined cast of characters becomes a cumbersome mess of flash-forwards and flash-backs that will leave you forgetting who did what and when.

It’s a film that presumes to present its facts relatively without bias, in complete deference to the mountain of K2 and its natural powers. It does a good job of demonstrating the true enemy in the lack of mercy a “mountain on a mountain” allows those who attempt to defeat it… Except, that is, when it doesn’t: The film goes out of its way to paint the Korean team, and especially its leader, as the obvious human villain in this story. And sure, mistakes were made, but it’s painfully obvious here that hindsight is 20/20 and blame is easily cast after a tragedy. Every explorer at this level knows that mistakes are unacceptable - making it a little absurd to suggest a villain like The Summit does, while never demonstrating that anyone else on the mountain took it upon themselves to refuse, halt, or even abort any of their plans.

It’s a compelling story, and there are some bone-chilling moments in the film, but its structure and voice often gets in the way of allowing that story to tell itself.