There is a brilliant scene early in The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest during which we are introduced to British climber Leo Houlding. The 20-year-old Houlding was chosen by Conrad Anker as his partner to ascend Mount Everest in 2007. He is blond and beautiful, lit by full sun. He walks up to a sheer granite face in the English countryside, some hundred feet vertical, and he commences to play it like a piano. Where no novice would see handholds or footholds, the man raises himself, free solo, quickly and assuredly by invisible, thumbnail-thick protrusions of rock. The cliff is topped by a deck of jutting ledges extending four or five feet beyond the smooth vertical wall that Houlding has just climbed like a ladder. The way a golfer might scratch his chin before a putt, Houlding hangs by four fingers and dangles above the field where he started, calmly considering his options. Then he inverts, and with a series of physics-defying dynamics, spiders over the ledges and stands on top.
It's a functional scene. The stated reason for the Anker/Houlding expedition, and The Wildest Dream, directed by Anthony Geffen, is to determine whether British mountaineer George Mallory—last seen alive in 1924, 800 feet from the peak of Mount Everest—could have free-soloed Everest's dread Second Step and reached the summit. The Second Step, a jagged and always-icy rock wall, was the last remaining barrier between Mallory and the summit when he disappeared into clouds and legend. The wall that Houlding climbs for the camera seems challenging. We are also shown the tall limestone Cheshire church where Mallory's father was vicar, and are told that it was on these impossible-seeming mossy exterior walls that Mallory the youth first proved himself as a climber.
The notion of what is possible becomes flexible in the company of Mallory, Anker, and Houlding.
The Wildest Dream tells two stories, to one of which you know the ending. George Mallory died during his third Everest expedition, last seen on June 9, 1924. All three expeditions were funded primarily by Britain's Royal Geographic Society. (What was called the Mount Everest Committee in Mallory's time had become the Joint Himalayan Committee by 1953, when it organized the first officially successful summit of Everest, led by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.) With the two poles conquered, Everest was to Mallory's generation what the moon was to John F. Kennedy's. And Mallory was a rock star. The citation is disputed, but no one cares—supposedly in answer to the question of why he must climb Everest, Mallory answered, "Because it's there."
The second story is Anker and Houlding's retracing of the route Mallory navigated with his partner Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, who perished along with Mallory. They trudge, at times (chosen more for the gratification of the camera, it seems, than any other purpose) in reconstructions of the tweed and gabardine clothing and other gear used by Mallory and Irvine. The modern climbers fairly approve of the antique togs, but pity the men who had no choice but to wear the heavy and cumbersome hobnail boots in low oxygen.
To say that super-climber Anker is haunted by Mallory is probably not an overstatement. Anker discovered Mallory's remains on Everest (where they still rest) in 1999. Soon after, Anker nearly died in the Himalayan avalanche that killed his longtime climbing partner Alex Lowe. Anker eventually married Lowe's widow, Jennifer, and adopted his three sons. Anker is filmed encountering Mallory's perfectly preserved corpse. His intuition of the dead climber's injuries and suffering cause you to empathize as much with the living climber as the deceased. Here is a man familiar with the cost of miscalculation.
The end to Anker and Houlding's story you can guess. (And most interested people that this reviewer encounters are guessing wrong.)
Those are the stories in The Wildest Dream. The film is billed as a documentary. If so, what it documents best are the changes in how adrenaline and attention addicts justify risking death over the span of a century, and changes in what viewers have come to expect from something called a documentary. Anker's wife recounts fretting from home in Bozeman, Mont., as monsoon snows close in on the Everest expedition. She tells Conrad to go for it, more or less. You simply cannot present death during sport as an elective to rational people who have mourned. Ultimately, the expedition's query amounts to an academic question or bar bet; professional curiosity, compensated by lots of product placement.
The film suffers from too much poofy padding for the sake of viewers ruined by dubious history television: Ralph Fiennes reading Mallory's motion-controlled letters, fly-over shots of ice and scree manipulated by computer for fear that they just wouldn't be riveting enough unenhanced; animated photographs, etc. It discredits the actual artifacts. If Frederick Wiseman's films are documentaries, The Wildest Dream is not. Once you realize it's a contrivance, things like Houlding's excellent scaling of that wall become suspect, and instead of an afternoon lark one imagines a week on location, with production assistants fussing over wardrobe continuity and jibs and scaffolding just out of frame.
In the end, Everest is the star of The Wildest Dream, and it looks great on the big screen. You'll see it ca. 2007 and 1924, with lots in between. Another thing documented, one supposes, is that against such a backdrop, men and movies are so much ephemera.