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Non-Review Review: Beyond the Edge

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

The story of Edmund Hillary is a fascinating one, rendered skilfully in 3D by Leanne Pooley. While Beyond the Edge leans just a little bit too heavy on pop psychology to dig into is subjects, and while the documentary could use a bit more room to breathe, it is a very effective illustration of exactly what the Hunt expedition accomplished in scaling Everest in May 1953.

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The mindset of a mountaineer must be absolutely fascination. It’s tough to rationalise the sorts of risks that these people undertake for the thrill of scaling a hunk of rock. One of the commentators compares scaling Everest to sending a man into space – a definite new “frontier” for mankind to cross in the wake of the Second World War. The dream of being the first person to climb the highest peak on the planet attracts a very particular sort of person, and Beyond the Edge seems to tease the audience with some insight into the New Zealander who reached the summit.

Hillary seems an absolutely fascinating character. A New Zealand local, he had actually been on a few previous attempts to reach the summit of Everest. Far from a professional rock climber or a former military man, Hillary was a bee keeper in his home country. Some of the movie’s more interesting anecdotes stem from this revelation – his rivalry with his brother, a fellow bee keeper; an interview in which Hillary explicitly compared bee keeping to mountaineering.

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Unfortunately, Beyond the Edge spends far too much time on superficial pop psychology. Trying to explore Hillary, it is quick to leap inside his head – to suggest and attribute particular motivations and anxieties to his actions and decisions. It does something similar with many of the supporting players in this drama, including expedition leader John Hunt and Hillary’s climbing colleague Tenzing Norgay.

These insights are certainly interesting, but they feel like cliff notes – sketches of figures who have passed away. It might be more interesting to delve into their lives and let their actions speak to their motivations or their issues. Instead, Beyond the Edge breezes along covering as much ground as possible in the time afforded. This lends the documentary something of a rushed feel, as if the movie is trying to brush over everything rather than exploring anything.

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Some of the more interesting aspects of Beyond the Edge are only mentioned fleetingly and in passing. For example, there’s a quick reference to some of the insane schemes suggested to help mountaineers to climb Everest using gadgets that would not look out of place on Adam West’s utility belt. There are references to the context of this last bid by Britain in the midst of post-war austerity and national pride. These are all touched on briefly, but they could each support more thorough exploration.

(It is also fascinating how the terminology for the bid was so clearly military. The expedition was relying on “the first assault team” to reach the peak. One commentator alludes to the practice of “laying siege to the mountain”, while another insists that a mountain simply can’t be “conquered.” There’s also the quite astute observation that the British attempt to scale Everest could be read as “the last hurrah of the British Empire.” Again, these are ideas that could be explored in more detail, but hint at a wonderful context.)

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Still, the movie is packed with all sorts of wonderful insights and observations. It’s fascinating to hear how New Zealand mountaineers were actually more suited to climbing the Himalayas than their European counterparts, due to the geological nature of the mountain itself. There are some nice insights into the types of technology developed to help make this accomplishment possible.

And it’s worth noting that director Leanne Pooley captures the beauty of Everest and mountain climbing with considerable skill. Beyond the Edge looks absolutely wonderful in 3D, recalling the popular use of 3D and Imax for documentaries shot in the nineties. It is breathtaking and powerful, with special mention for Bruce Langley’s sound editing and David Long’s musical score to the film.

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Beyond the Edge lacks the sheer gut punch of something like The Summit, but is a well-constructed mountaineering documentary.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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