Stephen Miller

AI researcher, startup cofounder, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Spotlight

In our 2014 recap, I left my #6 slot reserved for the “Dallas Buyers’ Club Award”: a conventional, non-boundary-pushing narrative that manages to blow you away by sheer consistency. Nightcrawler won out, though Gone Girl (like most David Fincher projects) probably fit the bill better. Zodiac is the patron saint of the genre.

It’s probably not a coincidence that all of those movies are about some form of journalism. More specifically, they’re about the process by which Truth becomes Story; it might be distorted (Nightcrawler), sensationalized (Gone Girl), or obsessively constructed (Zodiac), but there’s always some mechanism at play. Sometimes the mechanism is subtext, an invisible hand that toys with characters’ lives. Here, the mechanisms are the true characters.

First is the protagonist: patient, level-headed, good-old-fashioned reporting. In 2001, an investigative branch of Boston Globe (“Spotlight”) was assigned to cover allegations of molestation in the local Catholic church. For a subject ripe for melodrama, the film that chronicles it is refreshingly understated. The horror of the story is rarely the focus — we already know the ending, and are living the epilogue. Spotlight is about the mechanics behind that story. It’s about how Rachel McAdams subtly calibrates her interview style to calm a nervous subject; how Michael Keaton pivots between boys’-club chumminess and disarming directness; how Mark Ruffalo looks up from his notepad to repeat an interviewee’s name, giving just enough eye-contact to convey sympathy while respecting his bruised, stoic ego; why Liev Schreiber chooses to stall publication long after HuffPo would have waged a clickbait culture war. It’s about characters setting aside drama to do their job; phenomenally acted to the point of being invisible.

Which isn’t to say it sidesteps the difficult questions; like Calvary, Spotlight has plenty to say about faith and disillusionment. But it’s never framed as a “gotchya” moment or lazy Religulous-esque indictment. The antagonist, if there is one, isn’t a specific villain. And despite characters’ repeated urges to “focus on the system”, I don’t think it’s a specific organization either — not even the obvious one at the center. It’s any system which discourages self-criticism, and any hierarchy which puts undue trust in its leaders. The Catholic Church, of course, is guilty. But so is Boston itself, whose members and media repeatedly looked the other way in the name of community pride. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Penn State, and the way collective hope — be it in God or the Home Team — can smother individual unease. Grand, dramatic conviction has the power to blind, and only a measured response can expose it. The two reasons no one trusts Schreiber are actually one: he’s a Jew and he doesn’t like baseball.

I really enjoyed this movie. Chris and I unpack it in this week’s episode.

Review: Spectre

I finally caught Jurassic World this weekend, and boy was it underwhelming. I’d call it “artless”, but I never expected art from a movie about Chris Pratt and dinosaurs. It’s the sheer joylessness that hit me. It felt like no one was invested, and no one wanted me to be. Impressive visuals are no substitute for awe, and a horde of CG velociraptors are infinitely less scary than carefully placed ripples in a glass of water.

Maybe it’s a fourth-installment curse, but Spectre suffers from that same joylessness. Setting aside the (unflattering) comparisons to Rogue Nation its plot will elicit, there aren’t specific missteps here. In fact, there’s nothing specific at all: it’s the generic average of every Bond movie. Slick locations, countless fight scenes, a hero who seduces and kills with chilling proficiency, a mild-mannered mastermind bent on destruction, and every conceivable vehicle to blow up. That’s the whole script. It’s so confident you’ve seen it before, it forgets to tell a story. Daniel Craig is hurting? Léa Seydoux is in love? Christoph Waltz has a personal vendetta? Why waste valuable screen time convincing me when you can just telegraph beats from better movies and say “you probably see where we’re going with this, right?”

In a year of massively successful Mission Impossible and Fast and Furious sequels, what makes Bond stand out? Certainly not the stakes. Spectre may throw us in a helicopter, sportscar, plane, train, and speedboat, but giddy ridiculousness just doesn’t suit it. And definitely not relevance, unless Snowden-esque conspiracies and a single use of the word “drone” still do something for you. No, the one thing Bond has in its wheelhouse is coolness. Restraint. That put-upon ease of the popular kid in highschool, too comfortable in its skin to try to impress you. Skyfall did things at its own pace, brooding and strange. Spectre bets you 10 bucks it can ollie over your head. Even when it shoots for style, like that long-take opening scene, it feels more like a Goodfellas fan saying “get it?” than a film with a grasp of itself. Sam Mendes is invisible here.

The other weapon it thinks it has is nostalgia; this is probably the most Vintage, and least empathetic, Daniel Craig has been. Everything from the Aston Martin to the decidedly-not-modern female characters screams “remember the good old days?” Like Jurassic World or Kingsman, it wants to mock its cake and eat it too — to be meta about its redundancy while simultaneously using it as a crutch. But pointing out emptiness doesn’t make you less empty…just a little desperate. Sometimes less is more, and in this case less Moore would have been better.

It’s not worse than Quantum of Solance, but it’s hard to feel optimistic about the future.

The Great War for Civilisation

“In all, it was to take my father’s generation just twenty-three months to create these artificial borders and the equally artificial nations contained within them…And it is, as I often reflect, a grim fact of my own life that my career as a journalist— first in Ireland, then in the Middle East and the Balkans— has been entirely spent in reporting the burning of these frontiers, the collapse of the statelets that my father’s war allowed us to create, and the killing of their peoples.”

Where do I begin with a book like this? At just over 1100 pages — 60 hours according to my optimistic Kindle — it’s a sprawling, unfocused behemoth. It’s messy, opinionated, depressing, exhausting, and frequently in need of an editor. It’s also fantastic.

My primary reason for reading about the Middle East was to know the bare minimum: who is who, where did they come from, why are they fighting, and how do they relate with us? Wikipedia, in principle, might have sufficed. But if 8th grade history class has taught me anything, it’s that bullet points are only helpful in hindsight; names, dates, and nations will invariably blur together til the moment you make them personal. In writing this book, Robert Fisk is attempting to do the impossible: to describe 30 years of history in the (broader) “Middle East”, and to make each bullet point personal. In one novel we learn about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Iran/Iraq war, the Gulf War, the Algerian civil war, the first and second Intifada, September 11, the war in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the growing unrest which continues today throughout the Levant. Not in passing, but in beautifully written, emotive detail.

The trick? It’s all in the first person. As foreign correspondent for The Times then The Independent, Fisk has seen more than one would think possible. He’s stood on the front lines of all aforementioned wars, borne witness to air raids and suicide bombings, snuck past Russian troops in the backseat of shabby taxis, climbed into charred tanks and bunkers (including Saddam’s), and nearly been killed on multiple occasions — including being stoned by a mob in post-9-11 Afghanistan. The book begins with a face-to-face interview with Bin Laden in 1996, jumps back to unrest in Soviet-occupied Kabul at the turn of the 1980’s, and ends on the streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad.

You can tell this was culled from decades of reports; the prose is carefully written and consistently breathtaking. It’s also deeply opinionated. But to criticize Fisk for a lack of objectivity is, I think, to entirely miss the point. Too often, “objectivity” is a euphemism for detachment, and detachment is anything but unbiased. Detachment always favors the status quo, the thing that says “everything is going fine” and sweeps moral quandaries under the rug of “necessity”. He wants to force us into an uncomfortable place, to understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of all of this chaos, and what might actually breed hatred for the West beyond a vague haze of “hating freedom.” And you don’t get that with bullet points.

Fisk’s reporting has been demonized as anti-American, anti-Semitic, pro-Saddam, pro-Osama, pro-terrorist propaganda. Hell, it’s probably been called pro-Putin and pro-Assad too, depending on what year it is. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be giving this 5 stars if I thought any of that were true. What it is, is deeply, compellingly humanitarian. It’s a howl of outrage against anyone, anywhere, that either needlessly kills or uses strategic diction to diminish the sadness of killing. And with the world already in unison about one subset of outrages (brutal dictatorships, sadistic killings in the name of religion), blaming Fisk for emphasizing a less-heard subset is a bit like waving an #AllLivesMatter sign in Ferguson. He repeatedly acknowledges that both sides have suffered, that many people we overthrew committed crimes against humanity, that nothing “excuses” bloodshed. But, at the same time, that it’s possible to understand motive without condoning the action.

“Is there, I ask myself, a key to all this, some incident, some lone truth that will illuminate all that we have done to the Middle East, the anger we have created, the terror we have inflicted upon those we now regard as our enemies? Is there some way in which to communicate this without reiterating the demands of the self-righteous, some way in which the death of innocence can be portrayed outside the framework of hatred? Osama bin Laden does not have to be the voice of those who have suffered. He has no monopoly over their grief and pain. He was never appointed their representative on earth.”

On its surface, the layout of the book may seem scattered. In the two years between the Iran/Iraq war and the Gulf War, for instance, we take a ~400 page detour to discuss his father’s World War I service, the Armenian Genocide, the Algerian Civil War, and the Israel/Palestine conflict. Emotionally, however, it makes perfect sense. The overarching theme of the book is the recurrence of history: war, oppression, bloody revolution. Iran/Iraq echoing the trenches of World War I, Saddam’s wrath against the Shiites and Kurds echoing the Armenian Genocide, post-liberation Iraq echoing post-FLN Algeria, our invasion of Afghanistan echoing the Soviets’, and on and on. When fascism was the fear, we supported the Soviets. When the Soviets were the fear, we supported Saddam against Iran, and Osama’s Sunni guerrillas against Socialist-controlled Afghanistan. When “terror” was the fear we supported scattered militia against Saddam’s Ba’athist and the Taliban’s Sunni “governments”. Now bloody anarchy is the overwhelming fear, and who’s left to support? Who haven’t we both battled and armed?

Again, I don’t think Fisk has all the answers. If I have any real criticism of this book, it’s that he sometimes trades his beautiful emotional equivalences (the tragedy of all suffering) for explicit, literal ones (“X is a thug, there is no difference between Y and Z”) — which makes the lack of a positive foreign policy solution more pronounced. Though there are clearly a few takeaways (don’t ever invade Iraq or Afghanistan, don’t support oppressive dictators, don’t strong-arm the UN), I have no idea what I would do if I were in power, inheriting this terrible history. But the one convicting principle, and the reason to read this book, is that at the very least we should be transparent about our messy ethical dilemmas — no, let’s call them sins. We should acknowledge the anger at the root of violence, condemn evil even when it comes from our “allies” — not cry from the rooftops about ISIS crucifying and beheading people, then turn a blind eye when Saudi Arabia has it as a part of its legal system — and be open about the terrible trade-offs our tangled allegiances have provoked. We shouldn’t hide behind words like “collateral” as a buffer from human suffering. We should actually stand for freedom and justice, for all its terrifying unpredictability. We should feel the weight of our history whenever we turn on the news, and above all, we should mourn with those who mourn.

“Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death had been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter round the warhorse so that we could talk about ‘target-rich environments’ and ‘collateral damage’ — that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crime of killing — and report the victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace.“

This has been a messy review, full of cherry-picked history lessons and likely one-sided takeaways. I’m sure as I start reading the likes of Thomas Friedman and Noam Chomsky, I’ll hear different outrages emphasized, and maybe with enough competing biases I’ll settle on something constructive. But I’m glad that for once I didn’t need to glance at Wikipedia to write this, and won’t when I’m reading other “objective”, historical accounts. I actually remember these names, dates, and nations, because Fisk made it personal.

Review: Bridge of Spies

The year is 1998. Our film ends where the director’s other Oscar winning film ended: a grave. James Ryan turns and asks his wife whether he’s a good man; “you are” she affirms. He and the audience solemnly salute our fallen protagonist. A lot has changed in 17 years, but some things stay the same: Matt Damon is still getting dazzlingly rescued, Tom Hanks still plays the Inspiring Good Man, and Steven Spielberg still spells “subtle” in all caps.

Not that a lack of subtlety is always a bad thing. Spielberg movies are stories not poems; tugging heartstrings with meticulously shot, lushly scored, totally straightforward narratives. We know exactly how we’re supposed to feel by the end, and sometimes we feel it deeply. But even at their best, what we’re responding to is well-crafted storytelling: he might underline some truth hidden in the synopsis, but he’s not making new ones from scratch. The plot, with or without visual embellishment, is king.

So maybe someone else should have made Bridge of Spies. Cold War intrigue, backroom deals, messy themes of pragmatism vs virtue — this could have easily been a movie I loved. But when story is presented as king, it’s hard not to get hung up on it. Like Peter McRobbie’s turn as a CIA director, this one was surprisingly dull…es. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Spielberg wanted his stakes to be higher than history granted, shortcutting the most interesting details of the Abel/Powers story (courtroom arguments, negotiation tactics) in service of “grand” themes and artificial dread. Meandering towards a foregone conclusion, it plays like a lackluster Lincoln; set in a Civil War where both sides are already pretty much agreed on the whole slavery thing.

Which isn’t to say it needed more embellishment. If anything, this could have been trimmed into a fascinating character study. The relationship between Hanks’ Donovan and Rylance’s Abel is the best part of the movie, and poses a timely question: what do we actually stand for? Despite solid performances, however, we rarely get to see them as more than motiveless, spoon-fed archetypes. The Standing Man. The Noble Enemy. The One Who Always Does What’s Right And The Wife Who’s Proud Of Him. Everybody Else.

Sporting lovely cinematography and plenty of good-natured sentiment, Bridge of Spies is hardly a bad way to spend two hours. Yet for all the craft on both sides of the camera, the final product feels remarkably artless. As the title cards detailed Donovan’s future endeavors, I found myself wishing the movie had ended a decade later — thousands of lives would ostensibly provide those stakes Spielberg was grasping for. But without a clear vision, would it help?

Review: The Walk

The story of Philippe Petit poses an unanswerable question: what human experience is worth dying for? Perched on a tightrope between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, he’s a Meru climber taken to absurd, logical heights: he doesn’t want to fall, but the beauty of his act — what makes passersby gape in awe rather than toss a begrudging quarter — is the overwhelming threat of death. Risk isn’t peripheral, it’s the primary aesthetic: a man staring mortality in the face and dancing. For what? Fame? Ego? “Art?”

The Walk doesn’t tell us much that Man on Wire hadn’t already covered, philosophically. But what it shows us is pure cinematic magic. 104 stories above Manhattan, all of Robert Zemeckis’ technophilic excesses become strengths: the exaggerated 3D disparity between wire and ground, the uncanny CG grace of Philippe’s movements, blinding fog and roaring winds in heavy-handed IMAX glory. When Petit steps onto the wire, we feel the weight of his vertigo; and when he finally conquers it, we feel his bizarre catharsis. I can’t explain it in words. All I know is there was something so calming, so optimistic about joining him up there. Maybe I’m just a sap.

Because why should it be optimistic, really? Philippe isn’t a rational character, and to any of us his actions ought to seem desperate and reckless. The coup of the movie, due in large part to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s charming performance, is that we cheer in spite of ourselves. Everything, from the terribly silly accents to Amélie-esque narrative flourishes, puts us in the headspace of this eccentric dreamer; an aesthete to whom ze towarrs (never les tours) beckon like sirens. I felt, in a small way, like I did watching Jodorowsky’s Dune: intoxicated by giddy ambition. The goal doesn’t need to make sense, it’s the wanting you want.

The Walk isn’t a remotely perfect movie, but those moments on the wire achieve something really special. Something rare in American blockbusters. Something tranquil, and celebratory, and — in some inexplicable way which has almost nothing to do with 2001 — profound. See it in theatres, on the biggest screen you can.

Chris and I exorcise all our terrible accents and The Wire references in week’s episode.

Review: The Martian

In 2010, a documentary crew filmed my typical Friday night routine: spending hours alone in a robotics lab, red-eyed and disheveled and muttering about calibration errors. When Wiseman’s At Berkeley eventually came out, a handful of reviewers singled out that scene as a metaphor for dehumanizing curricula, an “amusingly literal parallel” for “the worry that students…are being turned into robots.” I still haven’t seen it. But what it must have failed to capture — or what I lacked the hindsight to emote — was that those frustrating, sleep-deprived nights were some of the best of my life. And possibly the least calculated, most reckless. Frat parties are a temporary fix. Collapsing on a pillow after five consecutive all-nighters in service of a few numbers in a last-minute conference submission — that’s what hedonism feels like. Problem solving is addictive.

Mike D’Angelo called The Martian the God’s Not Dead of science flicks, and I know exactly what he means: it’s totally a uncritical celebration of the drug of problem solving, meant less to make you think than evangelize. Maybe fifteen minutes in, all requisite exposition is already out of the way. Matt Damon is stranded on Mars. He’s been allotted some five minutes of what I’d assumed would be the core of the movie: repetition, loneliness, despair. Then, looking out at Camus’ vast, absurd nothing, he laughs. “Nah. I’m not gonna die here.” Cue disco and space potatoes.

From there on out, the film progresses as pure science porn; outlines of Gravity and Contact painted with a notably giddier brush. Like a point-and-click adventure game, we’re perpetually faced with seemingly unsurmountable challenges and just enough items in our inventory to surmount them. The message of the film is the very reason the space program exists: there’s always an answer hiding somewhere, and the collective spirit of humanity can never stop looking. To search for reason in an unreasonable universe.

All that probably sounds a bit After School Special, and to a cynical eye, it probably is: everything, from the wavelength of Watney’s emotional troughs to the precise demographic balance of the cast, is calculated to maximize its positive message. So why turn off that cynical part of me? It has a lot to do with Damon’s charisma: like Oscar Isaac from Ex Machina’s friendly doppelgänger, he brings the perfect blend of jock-y playfulness, self-deprecation, and nerd cred to the role. It turns the whole thing into a communal experience, complete with that genuine hero worship of classic movies: we, the audience, are huddled around the screen together. And we really want to bring our boy home.

I found this movie irresistible. If you’re hoping for a rumination on the bleak loneliness of space, look elsewhere: The Martian doesn’t spend much time in Gethsemane. But between M Night Shyamalan, Ridley Scott, and Pirate Blonde Beard of ARES III, it’s been a great month for resurrections.

Review: Sicario

2015 has had its fair share of great movies, and hindsight may prove me wrong. But so far, this is shaping up to be the year of the Big, Promising, Competently Made Disappointment. Be it blockbuster (Age of Ultron,) indie (Z for Zachariah,) comedy (the bizarrely-still-in-theatres Trainwreck,) or awards-baiting-biopic (Pawn Sacrifice [review forthcoming],) buzzed-about releases which I had every intention of loving have consistently come in just a notch above “fine.”

I had every intention of loving Sicario, and boy did its first hour or so reciprocate. From the chilling prologue to the perfect Juarez sequence, the first half of the film is a masterclass in claustrophobic mood-building. Villeneuve knows the precise composition of dread: sharp crescendos of grizzly violence convince us that anything could happen, deep swells of bureaucratic procedural remind us that no one will care. It’s not a fear of death, so much as numb routine — that unremarkable whizz of a bullet, slump of a body, scratch of a pencil on some government form. “Illegal.”

If all that sounds timely and political, don’t you worry: the remainder of the film is firmly committed to saying nothing. No ends to connect, no arc for any characters to go on, no plausible motivations or logical narrative. Even the mood — that one thing the film so masterfully manipulated — follows no meaningful trajectory as the body count joylessly increases. I’m fine with uncertainty — Inherent Vice and its law-bending Brolin didn’t make a lick of sense either, and I loved it. But there’s a difference between haziness and laziness. This one felt like no one knew what was going on, and “that’s a metaphor for the drug war” doesn’t carry convincing weight. Like Fury, it takes an action-riddled turn which only serves to muddy the damnation of the first act; only this time, it’s not even ostensibly fun. Emily Blunt’s Macer, the clear audience surrogate, tells us exactly how we should feel by the end of the film: a vague hodgepodge of negative emotions, filled with holy indignance but unable to clearly state why.

The initial chill of Juarez propelled me through the lesser half of the movie, and lingered even as the credits rolled. Weak script aside, I was genuinely shaken. But with a subject this heavy, is “shaken” really the litmus test? Crossing lines is easy. The border between mood-building and sadism — between calls to arms and empty protest — is a point.

Review: Z for Zachariah

March, 2015. The festival circuit has just ended, national premier is a few months away, and director Craig Zobel is slouched in a La-Z-Boy nursing a well-deserved beer. It’s been a wild, wild ride. He flips on Fox to catch that new Will Forte comedy everyone’s been raving about. Thirty minutes pass in silence.

“I’ve made a huge mistake.”

If I could describe Z for Zachariah with one word, it would be “odd.” Not in content, but in the fact that it exists at all. It’s an odd convergence of mismatched ideas, things which sound great individually but never really add up. Nuclear war has ravaged the earth, and Ann and Mr. Loomis believe themselves to be the only survivors. She clings to her faith, he clings to his science (why are those pronouns almost never reversed? Thank God / Science for Contact), but both know they have to rebuild. Forced together despite few commonalities, theirs is a tense union — and we have every reason to expect something will snap. Then hunky, Southern good ol’ boy Caleb wanders in from the Nicholas Sparks shoot next door.

Hold up. What was this movie supposed to be about?! You bring up themes of faith vs science, of romance vs cold patriarchal duty, of gnawing racial tensions; you present me with this murky relationship that promises to deepen into something terrifying or beautiful — and now after a half hour of lip-service, you jettison it all for a love triangle? And an imbalanced love triangle at that: we know virtually nothing about Caleb, except that the good Lord blessed him with rugged good looks, baby blues, and fortitude against radiation. It’s a truly bizarre twist, and one that the film created from scratch: even the book, targeted at ADHD-addled young adults, was content with two characters. That The Last Man On Earth mined so many laughs from such similar territory, only makes its lack of a payoff more pronounced.

Normally I’d be forgiving of missteps like this. It’s a small film, it took a risk, and it didn’t work. But like Interstellar, Zachariah unfolds with a sort of self-serious grandeur that practically begs me to nitpick. That ultra-brooding slowburn, those indulgent shots of nature, banal platitudes lobbed with the gravitas of Scripture — everything cries “Trust me, I’m an artist and I’m about to blow your mind.” After 80 minutes of failing to blow my mind, it busts out a shot-by-shot homage to Tarkovsky’s Stalker… and it’s probably the most affecting of the movie. Like Kubrick to Nolan, though, the nod feels less loving than delusional.

Excellent acting and solid ambience keep this from being a bust. But those can only take you so far. At some point, all that mood building needs to actually build something

Review: Queen of Earth

Alternate title: Black Swan-berg-man?

Alex Ross Perry garners an awkward sort of critical acclaim — the kind that sounds like a coded warning. I’ve learned the euphemisms for similar filmmakers: “acidic wit” = overscripted; “biting comedy” = zero laughs; “like X meets Y” = intellectual masturbation. Like Infinite Jest meets Ulysses, even glowing praise comes across as a sort of backhanded humblebrag. “He’s the literary voice of our generation — oh, and 99% of you won’t finish the book.”

I’m not sure how many pleasant surprises it will take for me to forget Greenberg and learn to trust again. Because what blew me away about Queen of Earth was its sheer immediacy. Absent is the preciousness that made my love of Listen Up Philip come with a disclaimer; if there’s winking irreverence or “comedy” to be had here, it went miles above my lowbrow head. I saw something earnest and visceral, and it stuck.

Queen of Earth is a gnawing psychological thriller about depression and the perils of ego, helmed by some of the best performances of the year. Elisabeth Moss steals the show as mentally-unraveling Catherine-with-a-C, but Katherine-with-a-K Waterston is possibly more heartbreaking in her portrayal of Virginia. There’s a constant struggle between empathy and resentment in her, a tug-of-war between tough love and “tough luck.” When does a frostbitten relationship turn gangrene? When do you give up on warmth and pick up the scalpel?

Catherine’s depression could have been played as grating; here, it simply terrifies. It never needs to do anything terrifying, it only needs to be the right amount of off: this off-kilter word choice, that offbeat smile. The eerie soundtrack and 16mm look only heighten the unease. Loose-scripted naturalism giving way to tight, romantic chaos, like Aronofsky directing a Joe Swanberg movie. It’s haunting because it breaks the rules.

In one memorable scene, the friends trade tales of heartbreak in long, unbroken monologues. Typically this would be an intimate moment, all eyes on the speaker. Instead, the camera lingers on the listener; the wide-eyed stare of a mind to busy rehearsing its response to actually hear you. It’s not a flattering look. Both women feel smothered and, paradoxically, neglected. That’s the trouble with other people’s stories: you’re never the protagonist.

Review: Meru

The Shark Fin at Meru isn’t the tallest peak in the world. It isn’t even in the top five, unless years of Jeopardy have totally failed me. And, at least from an outside perspective, it isn’t the most beautiful or obviously daunting — hell, the peak in question is the shortest of three. What it is is technically difficult, extremely dangerous, and as of five years ago, unclimbed. Watching the trailer for this documentary, I couldn’t shake the question: why would anyone risk his life for the (literally) Sisyphean challenge of going up and down a mountain? Why throw yourself at the solution when the problem is only meaningful by virtue of being hard? Why climb this?

I doubt a satisfying answer exists, and Meru certainly doesn’t offer one. Instead, it answers a related question: what sort of person would climb this? Or maybe, what does it look like to need this? While the film was billed as an epic quest, where it really thrives is as an intimate character study. You get to know Conrad, Jimmy, and Renan in the same way they might have met each other: on the mountain. Like any friendship, at first it’s all about a shared goal. They’re staring at route maps, muttering jargon you don’t quite understand; you might learn something in passing, but the peak is the point. Then it moves to shared experience: it’s been raining for days, prospects look bleak, and you’re cooped up in a tiny portaledge, commiserating. Bonding via immersion, even when no one says a thing. The camera is everything here, and it’s amazing how much exhilaration — and bored claustrophobia — it manages to express. Like always, though, things eventually get personal. Conrad opens up about love and loss, Jimmy and Renan share perspective-defining moments. They look you in the eye and try to tell you what it all means. And even if they can’t quite verbalize it, you start to feel a whiff of it too. You can’t put your finger on why; all you know is you want to share in that moment at the top, to see the world from their (irrational?) point of view.

Say what you will, but that view is really something.