Touching the Void (documentary)

“Touching the Void” is one of the most extraordinary stories of endurance I have ever seen. If it were a fictional story, I would dismiss it as implausible and preposterous. As a documentary — which is to say, all of this really happened — it’s astonishing.

In 1985 British mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to climb the face of Peru’s Siula Grande. They were experienced ice-climbers who felt the mountain would be a challenge, but not an impossible one. They left an associate, Richard Hawking, down at the base to wait for their return, which they believed would be in just a few days.

I do not need to tell you that a few things went wrong. Because I want you to see this movie, and because you probably don’t remember the story from when it happened (though you may have seen the book Joe wrote, also called “Touching the Void”), I won’t reveal the details. Suffice it to say that one of the men was injured and subsequently separated from his partner, all in the midst of weather conditions that bordered on blizzard-like, with a dearth of food and water available to them. (You need several liters of water per day when doing strenuous activity like mountain-climbing, and you can only eat so much snow.)

Director Kevin Macdonald, whose Oscar-winning “One Day in September” (2000) is another documentary worth visiting, interviews Joe, Simon and Richard in detail, and they provide the narrative. He needed something for us to look at, though, so he hired actors — Nicholas Aaron as Simon and Brendan Mackey as Joe — to re-create many of the physical details of the perilous adventure. We are thus able to see, as well as hear, what happened.

Macdonald doesn’t have the actors speak much dialogue, leaving it to the real Joe and Simon to explain it in their own words. So the actors provide only a physical presence, but their impact on the movie is immeasurable. Macdonald captures some beautiful mountain footage (he shot on location in Peru), and much of what the actors do does seem dangerous, though of course they had photographic tricks and stunt men on their side, which Joe and Simon did not.

I spent much of the film shaking my head in disbelief as I saw what men are capable of doing in dire circumstances, the extent to which people can be broken down and still come back. There were at least three points when I thought, “Well, that’s it, there’s no way he can survive this,” followed immediately by the thought, “But he obviously DID survive, because he’s NARRATING THE STORY!”

What a scary, engrossing movie this is! It is summed up by something Joe says in the narration, which I submit as the understatement of the year: “I can be insanely stubborn.”

A- (1 hr., 48 min.; R, a smattering of F-words, intense situations.)