The Summit is the second feature length documentary we saw at Sundance, and was quite a different experience to Blackfish. Before attacking the plot, lets prologue this review by saying The Summit looks absolutely beautiful. Being able to see the K2 mountain on a cinema screen is so much more satisfying than on a TV and the general landscapes and vistas of the movie are stunning; they lend themselves perfectly to the cinematic medium.
Narrative-wise, The Summit deals with the true story of a large number of expeditions from many countries that descended on K2, the second largest peak on Earth, to ascend to its summit. The first title card tells us, of the 25 mountaineers that tried to summit the mountain on 2nd August 2008, 11 died. The suspense of the narrative is explained within 30 seconds of the movie, so naturally you would expect quick gratification of the story, or at least an understandable, coherent set of imagery and character development. This movie won Best Editing at Sundance Documentary Festival in January, and while it was fantastically executed from a technical standpoint, we quickly found ourselves lost within the reconstructions [which were shot in 2:35:1], archive footage [which was whatever ratio of the climbers’ cameras] and documented photos. The story is not told in a linear way; we are repeatedly seeing a series of the same shots, and before the peak of the narrative it was difficult to decipher whether some of the shots were from the actual event or reconstructions. The existence of archive footage is a gift to a documentary, it should be clearly definable to the viewer, not lost. Making a documentary with cinematic stylistics is sometimes the perfect way to tell a story (Touching The Void is the key example), but there is a fine line a film-maker has to tread between narrative development and narrative contrivance, and there were points in The Summit when unfortunately it was the latter.
The human tragedy suffered by the families and friends of the dead climbers is a clear focus of the documentary. The talking head interviews help us develop a deeper understanding of some of the key protagonists and their motivations, and the Walter Bonatti segments describing a previous failed Italian expedition in 1954 are beautifully poetic, however the ending is somewhat confused. Rhetorically, are we supposed to be annoyed at the Korean expedition, as they seem to be painted as having an archaic climbing style? Is the thrill of mountaineering described by the characters supposed to make us overtly sympathetic to their sport? It’s a detriment to the film-makers that these questions are lingering. The Summit would have benefited with a bolder argument or even a hypothesis into how events unfolded on the K2, instead the ambiguous nature of the story has transferred into its telling.
The Summit looks absolutely stunning and tells a fantastic story; one that shocked the wider climbing world and general public back in 2008, but ultimately it suffers from its own ambition. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves, and even more so when they are presented in a coherent manner.