A Lesson in Historical Storytelling from ‘Touching the Void’ and ‘The Summit’

Touching the void

Last night, Neil DeGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to complain about Gravity. It turns out that various pieces of satellite debris orbit the earth in the wrong direction, the space stations aren’t in the right places, and Sandra Bullock’s hair isn’t floppy enough. Also, no one who has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey should be impressed by the way Alfonso Cuarón shows zero-gravity conditions today. Finally, he doesn’t understand “why we enjoy a sci-fi film set in make-believe space more than we enjoy actual people set in real space.” If you’re thinking that this might be a bit ridiculous, that’s because it is.

However, it raises an interesting question. Are filmmakers responsible for telling the truth, or the entire scope of the truth? Obviously Cuarón isn’t. This is a science fiction film and all of Tyson’s suggested edits would have added up to a pretty boring movie. But what about documentary filmmakers? Gravity is not the only high-flying survival story in theaters this weekend. Nick Ryan’s The Summit tells the story of a 2008 tragedy on the slopes of K2, the worst ever on the world’s second-highest peak. It has moments of high-stakes, thrilling storytelling but gets bogged down in historical details. It is, in a few ways, the polar opposite of Gravity.

It isn’t really fair to compare a Hollywood science fiction hit and a little documentary about a real life disaster. It is, however, fair to compare The Summit with another mountaineering documentary. Kevin MacDonald’s Touching the Void had its world premiere just over 10 years ago. It tells the story of two young British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who nearly lost their lives on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. MacDonald interviewed the two men and then combined their testimony with re-enactments that were shot on and around the site of the actual climb.

Structurally, Touching the Void actually has a lot more in common with Gravity than it does with The Summit. It is incredibly straightforward, taking the audience through the almost fatal climb step by step. There’s no bouncing about through time, exploring the prior lives of the two men or the history of mountain climbing in Peru. No excessive context is needed. Gravity, with the exception of brief stories told by Bullock and George Clooney’s characters about their private lives, is the same. Cuarón never cuts to the command center in Houston or to training sessions before this particular mission. These two films, documentary and science fiction, are each at core a simple survival thriller.


The Summit, meanwhile, is a bit of a mess. Ryan resists linearity, and jumps around the timeline of the K2 disaster. It can be hard to follow. There are also interruptions, most significantly the history of the first Italian attempt to climb the mountain in 1954. This parallel narrative features the testimony of Walter Bonatti, who was accused of hoarding oxygen and thus endangering his teammates. This is thematically relevant, certainly. One of the climbers who lost his life on K2 in 2008, Gerard McDonnell, was accused of improper behavior even after the disaster. Yet the Bonatti story is not blended well at all into the more recent narrative, and it becomes another distraction in a film that is already scattered and frustrating.

The Summit is simply too weighed down by its own story. Eleven people died on K2 that August, and three more were injured. Ryan delivers extended back story for some of them, especially McDonnell. There’s also a fitful, if detailed attempt to understand how such a disaster was possible. The tight, exciting structure of Touching the Void and Gravity simply wouldn’t accommodate such diversions.

That being said, it is also inherently easier for MacDonald and Cuarón to keep things tight. Only two people are on the mountain in Touching the Void, while the K2 disaster involved tens of climbers. Gravity, meanwhile, is fictional. Cuarón didn’t even need to get the science exactly right, despite objections from certain physicists. The Summit is the story of real people trying to escape a towering, snowy graveyard.

Yet even these fundamental facts aren’t quite enough of an explanation. The core of The Summit’s problem is the relationship between history and tragedy. The loss of eleven lives on K2 was a profound disaster. The human response to such terrible events is to give them context, history, and hopefully meaning. The impulse is to learn why the tragedy happened, and how it could have been prevented. It is also to find someone to blame. That’s why Ryan, somewhat tactlessly, tosses insinuations at the leader of the Korean climbing team, somehow without realizing that he lost more friends that day than anyone else on the mountain. The Summit also charts the struggle of McDonnell’s family to get the story right, to discover that he was actually something of a hero. The documentary gets lost in these competing attempts to rationalize and contextualize.

The Summit, then, is less than the sum of its parts. Ryan looks for meaning in too many different places, and the result is a film that leaves too many questions unanswered, too many aspects of its story muddled or ignored. It cracks under the pressure of tragedy, and tries to juggle too many balls in an attempt to tie up the whole story in a single cathartic bow. Perhaps a narrow focus, like that of Touching the Void, would also have gone badly. But given the way things turned out, cutting out some of the context to tell a narrower story would have been a good idea. No filmmaker, not even a documentary filmmaker, is obliged to tell the fullest possible version of the truth.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.