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Clinging to life: the climbers in Touching the Void.

The White Hell of Siula Grande
By Ann Morrow

Touching the Void
Directed by Kevin MacDonald

Touching the Void, the inten-sely gripping “true story of one man’s miraculous survival,” is unlike any other docudrama to come before. Based on Joe Simpson’s 1989 memoir of the same name, it viscerally reenacts the near-fatal mountaineering expedition of Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates. After reaching the summit of the perilous Siula Grande peak in the Peruvian Andes, the British climbers were besieged by unexpected conditions, including treacherous snowdrifts, brittle ice, and a blizzard. While navigating the descent, Joe plunges into a vast crevasse with no hope of climbing out. What follows is the story not only of Joe’s indomitable will to live, but also an examination of friendship, courage, and the furthest limits of physical and psychological endurance.

The film uses interviews with Simpson, Yates, and their base-camp attendant, Richard Hawking, to narrate the tale, and re-creates the experience with actors and some very talented stunt men. The result is an often terrifying immediacy that is not allayed by the knowledge that, obviously, both men survived. Although the events of the climb are fascinating, it’s the admirable, frequently unnerving candor of the interviewees that make good on the film’s title. By the end of Touching the Void, viewers truly feel as if they’ve been taken to the brink and back.

But first, the film explores the question of why mountain climbers put themselves in certain danger in the first place. Joe, 25, and the younger of the two, says that “risk takes you out of the humdrum, it makes you feel more alive.” For Simon, the more experienced climber, it’s simply that “mountains are the most beautiful places in the world,” a claim that is illustrated by breathtaking footage of the 21,000-foot Siula Grande. For the climb, the men choose Alpine style, the “purest” way of climbing. They travel light, relying on speed to get up and down without having to establish provision stations—or any other safety net. They are tethered only to each other, a system that requires “immense trust in the other’s skills.”

During the descent, Joe tumbles down an icy vertical drop, smashing his leg. He knows immediately his crippling injury is practically a death sentence, and is surprised when Simon takes on the huge risk of lowering him by rope down the mountain, using his own body as the anchor. Partway down, Joe slips off a precipice, and is left dangling in thin air. As Simon is dragged off the precipice by his partner’s weight—dooming them both—he decides to cut the rope, and Joe falls into the crevasse. The re-creation of these sequences achieves an almost unbearable verisimilitude. That the two climbers are played by actors is instantly forgotten, especially since their heads are covered in protective gear; later, their faces become so swollen and charred by exposure that they’re unrecognizable anyway.

The following four days can be described only as a testament to the survival instinct. As the guilt-stricken Simon attempts to walk back to base, Joe takes the incredible gamble of dropping into the unknown depths of the crevasse. In shock from blood loss, dehydrated, starving, and succumbing to the dread of the “void” he’s in, he endures a psychological ordeal that is even more harrowing than his physical one. MacDonald, an Oscar-winning documentarian (for One Day in September, about the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics), conveys Joe’s agonizing mental state with the use of trick photography that doesn’t at all detract from the film’s realism. But it’s the stoic narration by the survivors that cuts closest to the experience. Since both climbers are stiff-upper-lip types (with Richard serving as the outsider observer), the blistering honesty of their recollections is a tribute to the filmmaker’s interviewing skills. By the time the partners are reunited at base camp, we feel we’ve gotten to know them in a way that very few people ever get to know another.

Meet cute: (l-r) Ryan and Daly in Against the Ropes.

Punch-Drunk Feminism

Against the Ropes
Directed by Charles S. Dutton

Poor Meg Ryan. She seems determined, considering her movie roles of late, to prove just how very earnest she is. Still flailing from her fall from grace—or rather, the public’s image of her as its own Little Mary Sunshine—she has embarked on a slew of disastrous films, the seeming purpose of which is to show that while she may not be LMS anymore, she’s a darned good actress. And so we had to withstand her shrewish turn as a modern love interest to an 18th-century dream in Kate & Leopold. Then we had to watch her be downright stupid, although I think she was going for vulnerable, in the slightly racy In the Cut. And now Meg is donning pleather, animal prints and spangles, not to mention a touch of a Midwestern droll (a hybrid Joan Rivers-Ben Hecht), as boxing manager Jackie Kallen in the generously reimagined Against the Ropes.

Ryan’s Kallen is ballsy; we know this because she quietly speaks up when her dimwitted, chauvinistic boss tries to put the blame for his blooper on her. She’s also got a heart of gold; we know that because when she walks into a bar, Gavin, the cute sports reporter (Tim Daly as eye candy), basically says something to that effect before repeating his wish that she’d go out with him. Not for Jackie, the moonlight-and-roses bit. She’s bent on making a name for herself in boxing, a sport she literally lived and breathed growing up as the underappreciated daughter of a dimwitted, chauvinistic trainer. One day, she can’t take it anymore, quits her demeaning job, and signs raw fighter Luther Shaw (Omar Epps). With a little luck, and the money she got for hawking her bling bling, she guides Luther to his shot at the title. The problem, however, is that the dimwitted, chauvinistic guys who run boxing have blackballed her, thereby practically denying Luther a chance to even be on the undercard. Anywhere.

The length and breadth of Ryan’s performance calls for her to gradually show just how much grit and determination she’s got as she repeatedly does battle with all those dimwitted chauvinists. Oh, and let’s not forget the all-important Big Lesson, which in this case, is that Jackie needs to put the needs of her fighters before her own ego. Having learned this, albeit the hard way, she goes on to appear, literally out of the blue, at Luther’s big fight, in time to intone some motherly wisdom and words of praise to the bruised and battered pugilist. No matter that goodhearted trainer Felix (Charles S. Dutton, in the stereotypical tough-but-cuddly mentor role) had basically done the same thing just prior to the fight. Something about Jackie’s street-tough “dese” and “dose” verbiage works miracles.

There’s nothing outright annoying about Against the Ropes. Indeed, there are some enjoyable performances, particularly Tony Shalhoub as a dimwitted chauvinist, and Kerry Washington, as Jackie’s friend and, later, Luther’s girlfriend. But the movie is less than a trifle, its story a series of sketchy moments pieced together by the audience’s ability to connect the narrative dots. Against the Ropes won’t hurt Ryan’s career, but it certainly won’t jump-start it, either.

—Laura Leon

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