I am obsessed with books, podcasts and films about summitting Everest. I am the obverse of an action-adventure extreme sportsperson and maybe that's why I find the psychology of needing to pit yourself against nature fascinating. What drives these people to go into the "death zone", where life cannot be sustained without supplemental oxygen, in such numbers that they cause contagion on the slopes, litter it with refuse, and ultimately - tragically - dead bodies?
FINDING MICHAEL is the latest addition to this body of work and takes a new angle of focussing on what happens to the families left behind. In this case, that of Michael Matthews, who perished on the way down from the summit, twenty years ago. His little brother's interest is piqued by a photo sent to them in 2017, of a body that could be Michael. Should he go at great expense and danger, leaving behind his wife, children and newborn baby, to try and get the body back?
The journey is one of discovery but not in the way we think it will be. The brother, Spencer Matthews, who was only ten with Michael died, is discovering the kind of man his brother was, and the journey he went on. We see a stunning trek up to base camp, we visit the same temple where Michael and Spencer take blessings, and camcorder footage from his fellow climbers on his way up. Some subtle and sensitive editing puts the two journeys side by side.
There are three almost unbearably sad moments in a very sad film throughout. The first is when very early on at base camp, the sherpas tell Spencer that the photo isn't of his brother at all, but of an Indian climber. But they send up climbers and drones anway to comb the slopes. The second moment was when Spencer looked at the last photo taken of his brother, already struggling for oxygen, already dying, just before he started to climb down. The last was when Spencer diverted resources from finding his brother to helping bring down the body of a dead sherpa so that his family could have closure, and seeing their wailing grief.
The journey is worth it for Spencer's greater discovery of his brother but comes at a cost: reopening the wounds of grief of his mother and sister. It's also somewhat problematic to me that he is willing to pay people to put themselves in danger on the small chance of recovering a dead body. And yes the resources are then diverted to help someone else, but only on the conditional that Michael is not found. It made me wonder in what sense both summitting on commercial climbs, and then the entire project of this film was one of wealth and entitlement. And yet one supposes that the industry - and employment - exists because of these people.
At any rate, I really enjoyed the film: it was both moving and thought-provoking. The cinematography is very special - with beautiful vistas of the mountain - and the way in which the editors step through the process of going up for lay-people to understand was really well done.
FINDING MICHAEL has a running time of 100 minutes and is streaming on Disney Plus.
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