Reviews: Everest, Pawn Sacrifice

Two movies based on real life incidents. One of them is a flawed, but an honest attempt to capture the ordeal of scaling an impossible peak. The other one is a myopic biopic of a twisted genius’ ascent to fame.

Neither of them has heroes who save the day, real life inconveniently getting in the way of storytelling. While the British movie gracefully deals with this fact as its humans climb ‘Into thin air‘, its Hollywood cousin decides to rejig history to create its own heroes, from thin air.

Everest was a tough watch. If you didn’t know much about the 1996 disaster, you would probably set yourself up for an eventual hero, a daring rescue, end credits showing happy post-movie photographs etc. You would be disappointed. The movie doesn’t even have a third act in the traditional sense. There is exposition, preparation, and actual climbing. Disaster strikes, some people survive and, roll credits. What the movie manages to achieve with this weak structure is remarkable, helped hugely by stellar camera work from its IMAX crew and a 3D that actually enhances the visual experience without giving a headache. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from severe pacing issues, which undermine an otherwise solid attempt.

By the 90s, climbing Everest was no longer a crazy adventurer’s niche. It was getting commercialized to the point that multiple businesses were competing for the rich clientele who were ready to throw in the money for a packaged ‘adventure of a lifetime’. It is this backdrop that motivates all the characters to behave the way they do. Egos are bruised and gambles are taken; risks that would normally be avoided are in play, all to prove a point – a rich Texan, to his family; a mailman, to his townsfolk; an entrepreneur, to his associates; a seasoned climber, to herself. The fact that most of them die is a painful, nevertheless foregone conclusion. After all, this is Everest. The final frontier, next only to Space, that is.

The acting, mostly underplayed, of almost all characters is top-notch. Strong performances from Josh Brolin and Jason Clarke steal the show while Michael Kelly is still very Doug Stamper. Jake Gyllenhaal turns up fine as well though his portrayal of the character is probably not quite accurate. Every survivor had their own point of view – often clashing against the other. Many of them went on to write books of their own. With these multiple versions of truth, the movie makers have conjured up a gripping account, not overplaying any particular version, taking only minimal liberties. Unfortunately, that cannot be said of the other movie.

Though I called Pawn Sacrifice a biopic, I hesitate to label it as such. It covers some portions of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer’s life, but never gives a holistic representation of anything, save a single piece of assumption, which the movie desperately sets out to prove – Bobby was a paranoid schizophrenic. What is unclear is this – does the script mean this as an excuse for his palpably dickish behavior, or does it mean to deceitfully misrepresent him as a complete cuckoo, when he was only slightly kooky?

Driven by the script, Toby Maguire goes nuts, bringing out all the crazies in him and he does this rather well. I am pretty sure he thought he was doing a Russell Crowe, but the script doesn’t take him anywhere close to that height. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call this his best performance, as many of the reviews out there do. It is mainly one-dimensional, with some good moments when he replicates the real-life Bobby based on available footage. It does get monotonous when he is only seen throwing tantrums after tantrums like my ickle toddler. Yes, Bobby seems to have made almost all of the ridiculous claims of the movie, but that doesn’t mean that the writer can sweep all of them under the proverbial rug of mental illness.

Liev Schreiber is rather likable as Boris Spassky, though I was half expecting him to pull out a handgun from his suit during some of his initial scenes. The fedora-clad patriot douchebag has long been a staple in most of these comical cold war undertone movies, but Michael Stuhlbarg makes this one fun to watch. The first half of the movie is formulaic with typically well done period sets. The second half is more compelling, with some good scenes, always pulled down by the director’s stubborn insistence on bringing in the crazy. I wonder how exciting the movie would have been if it had received the treatment the story deserved.

Both movies are definitely worth a watch though both of them would probably end up surprising you in ways you didn’t anticipate. That is always a good thing, I reckon.

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