There's steady, scary thrill in the final third of Meru, the latest attempt to conquer the climb-and-tweak-the-nose-of-God mountaineering documentary, a genre that has yet to reach its apex. The terrible beauty of the Shark's Fin point of northern India's Mount Meru is enough to make this worth seeking out on the big screen — how better to appreciate the sickening way that the alpinists' tent, fastened to a ledge 18,000 feet up, flaps in the wind as the sun hauls itself up over a ridge behind it? We see clouds in time-lapse twine and billow around Meru's base like the colored skirts of Annabelle the dancer in those earliest 19th-century Edison films.
These late climbing scenes are as close as most of us will ever come to the lightheaded, low-oxygen grandeur of scraping up against the heavens, all stone silence and a lush seam of stars, but they also honor the specifics of that scraping, which is hard and dangerous toil. In darkness the climbers chisel through ice, ascending an overhang that might shatter with their hammering — and, yes, you'll see chunks of granite the crew was counting on plummet back down to earth. This is a crowd-pleaser, and it's no surprise it snagged the audience award for documentaries at Sundance last winter.
Getting to these moments is a bit of a climb itself, though. Such footage is precious, which is both a compliment and an acknowledgment that there's not as much of it as you might prefer. The alpinists — Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk — wear cameras, but they're more worried about their ascent than they are about getting the next shot. The film is filled out with interviews with the climbers, plus some of their other adventures, including skiing accidents and an avalanche. Chin (also a co-director, with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, his wife) speaks with chilling matter-of-factness about the possibility of dying — and how he felt more free to take risks following the death of his mother, whom he had promised would never see him die.
Less compelling is author Jon Krakauer, who sells Meru like he's the mountain's press rep: "The test of the master climber," he intones. He sells two-fisted drama, too, making pronouncements like this in the middle reels, between the crew's two stabs at conquering the Shark's Fin: "If you die taking a stupid risk, not only are you dead — you've embarrassed yourself." If embarrassment is worse than death, why does he talk so much?