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Great Heights

The docudrama Touching the Void delivers white-knuckle suspense.


Some acts of courage -- the firefighter's return to a burning house to rescue a child, the infantryman's sacrifice for a wounded comrade, the weary black woman's refusal to yield her seat on a segregated bus -- command everyone's respect. Sometimes, though, courage can feel clouded -- especially when it's a response to voluntary risk or macho vanity. Viewers will probably form their own notions about the courage on display in Touching the Void, director Kevin Macdonald's harrowing film about the ill-fated 1985 attempt by two British mountain climbers to conquer a forbidding 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes.

We know from the start that 21-year-old Simon Yates and 25-year-old Joe Simpson got up the mountain and back down again. Yates and Simpson themselves tell us about the ordeal on-camera, and Simpson wrote a book about it. But the journey was anything but routine. No one had ever climbed Siula Grande, and for good reason. It is less a mountain peak than one huge, treacherous icicle, and the fearless young purists' resolve to scale it in the classic alpine style -- two blokes connected by one rope -- signaled disaster from the start. For that and for surviving, Simpson and Yates have become legends among their peers. And for another thing, too: During their perilous descent, Simpson fell and shattered his leg; eventually Yates, believing Simpson was dead, cut the slender thread joining him to his partner, who was dangling in the air, unseen, 100 feet below. Many in the code-bound climbing fraternity have never forgiven Yates, though Simpson has.

Moral quandaries and the insouciance of youth aside, Void has to be the most dangerous-looking, thrill-packed mountaineering movie ever made. Macdonald is best known for his Oscar-winning One Day in September, a disturbing documentary about the terrorist hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Void is instead a nearly flawless example of "docudrama," a hybrid form that seeks to combine the real and the re-imagined, often with disastrous results. In this case, though, Macdonald creates high tension between dispassionate interviews with the two climbers (separate interviews, it's worth noting) and his breathtaking re-creation of the climb (with actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron), itself filmed at great risk in the Andes and the French Alps.

If you suffer from vertigo or are easily chilled by visual suggestion, stay away. Macdonald and his intrepid crew give us the real thing -- gorgeous aerial shots of awesome peaks, wrenching close-ups of the climbers trying to sink their crampons into vertical faces of ice and rock, weather so bleak and angry that you may feel like slipping out of the theater for coffee.

When Simpson falls into a chillingly beautiful crevasse, it may as well be the mouth of hell. But to his credit, Macdonald refrains from shoving symbols at us. Simpson's miraculous emergence from his ice-blue deathtrap and his painful, crablike descent are presented so matter-of-factly that we must conjure up the deeper meaning of it all for ourselves, just as we are left to contemplate the nature of Simpson's courage. Void simply shows us, in incredibly vivid detail, heart-stopping danger and the raw will to survive.

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