DVD Review: Meru

MeruDVDSTUDIO: Music Box Films | DIRECTOR: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
RELEASE DATE: 11/17/15 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $34.95
BONUSES: commentaries, Sundance festival interviews, director Q&As, bonus footage
SPECS: R | 90 min. | Documentary | 1.78:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video | Overall

In the tradition of “man versus nature” films comes Meru, a new mountain climbing documentary following three amigos: expedition leader Conrad Anker, his trusty pal Jimmy Chin (who happened to shoot and co-direct the film) and wunderkind Renan Ozturk (who also doubled as cinematographer.) Together, they tackle the holy grail of big-wall climbing: an impossible stretch of rock known as “Shark’s Fin” resting at the top of India’s Meru Peak. Many have attempted to climb it, and all have failed, including Conrad’s mentor, making it an irresistible challenge to these young thrill-seekers. They gear up, give it their best shot, and fail.

But that’s just the beginning; Meru would be yet another entry in a string of formulaic, “life-affirming” sporting movies if it weren’t for its crazy—and 100% true—tales, one involving deep tragedy, impossible stakes, and plot twists galore. Its strength lies in the way it weaves the tale, exposing bits of backstory like a clever striptease that slowly sucks you in. Editor Bob Eisenhardt, along with co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, deserve credit for turning what could have been an 90 minute ad for The North Face into something much more interesting. Hearing the story told from the points of view of wives, girlfriends and others adds an important dimension to a film that threatens to double as a gigantic ego-trip for three hotshot climbers.


Conrad Anker in Meru

But the most interesting part of the film is probably unintentional: the fundamental question of “why?” Why would anyone risk their lives—recklessly, despite what our protagonists claim—just to climb a damn rock? And why should you or I care? The film clearly portrays these men as heroes, ones that symbolize man’s victory over nature… but they’re also ridiculous embodiments of the extreme sports dude, stereotypically self-centered and shallow. One of them suffers an almost life-ending injury, but decides to run off behind his girlfriend’s back anyway to be part of a climb that has a good chance of being his death. His girlfriend tries to laugh it off in the interview, but her frustration is visible enough, as is that of Conrad’s wife who, despite having already lost one husband in a previous rock-climbing expedition, shrugs it off with a “boys will be boys” resignation.

There are plenty of details like that one, which almost push Meru into a Spinal Tap like mockumentary. It’s an odd balance between getting sucked into some genuine edge-of-seat drama and being constantly reminded that, if something does go wrong, these fools pretty much deserve it. In other words, it’s a story of heroism, or a story of foolishness, depending on your point of view.

A much more interesting story is the making of Meru, chronicled through the various interviews and scenes found in the DVD extras. The story is riveting only because Chin and Ozturk had the presence of mind to shoot great footage while climbing the most challenging mountain in human history. How do you keep a camera steady while your body is at the point of exhaustion? Their commitment to capturing this insane deed is the true act of heroism, and you come to admire Jimmy much more as a professional filmmaker than you do as an extreme sports fanatic. At least, I do; others may see things differently, and therein lies the unique quality of Meru.


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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.