Meru (Music Box Films, R)

film meru_smIt’s disappointing for a film that seems to want to be more than the chronicle of three bros on a mountain but doesn’t know how to get there.




film meru

In Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, Mount Meru is the center of the universe. Meru Peak, on the other hand, is a mountain in the India Himalayas that includes a feature known as the Shark’s Fin that the team of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk first climbed successfully in 2011. It’s the second Meru—or, more accurately, the successful summit attempt by Anker, Chin, and Ozturk—which is the subject of Meru, a documentary directed by Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi.

Climbing the Shark’s Fin poses some particular challenges that may not be obvious to the naked eye, but which are enumerated by various speakers in this film. It’s not the highest mountain in the world, but at over 21,000 feet, it is high enough that the altitude is a factor in the climbers’ ability to function. It requires several different skill sets, with the attendant differing sets of equipment, all of which must be lugged up the mountain. It can’t be climbed quickly due to some technical challenges, so days and days worth of food must be carried by the climbers. Finally, it’s not a mountain that lends itself to the use of sherpas, so the climbers must transport their own gear to where it is needed.

Anker, Chin, and Ozturk first tried to climb the Shark’s Fin in 2008 but failed to reach the summit. Three years later, they got back together to make another attempt. Most of the film is devoted to the first attempt and to what happened in those three intervening years, with the second attempt receiving relatively short shrift. A few other talking heads appear, mainly members of the climbers’ families, plus the writer Jon Krakauer, to provide some background about mountaineering and to give the audience a sense of who the three climbers are when they’re not scaling a peak.

Unfortunately, Meru is happy to remain on the surface, accepting the usual mountaineering clichés without question. That’s an understandable hazard when making a film about something you love, with close friends in central roles, but it also signals a willingness to reproduce the conventional wisdom rather than look for something more revealing or substantial. That’s disappointing for a film that seems to want to be more than the chronicle of three bros on a mountain but doesn’t know how to get there.

The greatest strength of Meru is the cinematography, which is not surprising given that Chin is a professional mountain photographer as well as an experienced climber and skier. (Among other things, he has skied down the summit of Mount Everest.) There are lots of stunning views of snowy mountain peaks, and lots of up-close-and-personal shots of the mountaineers during the expeditions, which put you as close as you will probably ever come to being on a climb of this sort. On the downside, the climbers are all media savvy and don’t reveal much of themselves, instead restricting the majority of their comments to talking about how cold it is, or making jokes about the food. In fact, everyone who appears on camera seems to be quite familiar with being on camera, making the interviews seem like set pieces that are polished but unlikely to reveal anything unexpected.

The sacred association of the name Meru had me hoping that this documentary would offer something other than the typical mountaineering narratives of bros “conquering” a previously unclimbed peak—and by conquer, of course, I mean being the first to the summit. That’s what the two expeditions profiled in this movie are all about; someone even says that once a mountain has been summited, “It’s done,” suggesting that there would be no point in climbing it after that point.

That’s a zero sum game if I ever heard one, and one that views mountains rather the way 19th-century European leaders viewed Africa. If you don’t buy into that assumption, then you may question whether the resources sunk into such missions, and the risks to both human life and the environment they entail, are worthwhile. While Meru does address the first type of risk, it’s not considered seriously as a factor in real-world decisions. If it were, the second expedition would never have taken place, and there would be no movie. | Sarah Boslaugh

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