Everest captures a compelling portrait of the 1996 disaster that took the lives of eight climbers on Mount Everest. It is successful in portraying the tragedy, whilst the cinematography draws you into the wonder and danger of the mountain. The real life victims are written well enough that you feel the plight that they go through. However, other films have been less successful, as there can be a thin line to walk between compelling the audience and being respectful to the events that took place.
Compare for instance two different films about 9/11 that were released in the same year (2006), Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass’s United 93. The former, whilst having the best of intentions, turned out to be a mawkish and overly- patriotic film that threw clichés at the screen in an effort to sell the film to as wide an audience as possible; as such, it fails in capturing a true portrayal of the horrifying event. The latter, meanwhile, focuses on a specific event of the day rather than the full picture, using Greengrass’s signature shaky-cam in order to accentuate the chaos and terror felt during the event. As such, United 93 was a far more respectful portrayal of the tragedy of 9/11 than the bigger World Trade Center as it was better able to capture the shock and horror that took place, whilst also evoking the bravery of the actions taken by the passengers seizing control of the cockpit.
War is a particular tragedy that can be hard to portray with the fullest respect, as many war films are full of grandiose imagery of explosions that can make war very attractive and exciting to audiences. The very best films in this genre are those that truly expose the horrors of war, making sure to show how horrific the effects are for both soldiers and civilians alike. Saving Private Ryan, for instance, exposes the audience to the sheer tragedy of the Omaha Beach landings effectively and quickly, with the use of handheld camera as the American soldiers enter the beach to be greeted by a massacre, contributes to the idea that war is hell. Similarly, Schindler’s List, is excellent in how it portrays the tragedy of the Holocaust, with the scene of the liquidation of the
Krakow ghetto in particular standing out in showing the full horror that went on for the persecuted Jews. The Jewish background of director Steven Spielberg is of particular importance here, as it allows for a more personal touch to the film, allowing him to portray the events with utmost respect and reverence.
On the other hand, when done the wrong way, you have a film such as Pearl Harbor, an attempt to cash in on the love story of Titanic and the epic battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Attempting to capture the events that sparked the US into joining the Second World War, Michael Bay’s film utterly misses the mark, as it focuses more of its efforts upon the love triangle between three fictional characters than it does on setting up the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. Sure, Titanic is guilty of doing the same thing, but it at least we see them interact with real life passengers on the ship, which helps add some tragedy when the ship sinks. With Pearl Harbor, none of our trio of leads are absent while the event is taking place, and none of the characters that actually partake in Pearl Harbor are developed in the slightest, leading you to feel detached from the event, arguably a crime for a film that portrays tragedy. Additionally, Bay’s commercialised sheen is all over the film, with scenes of dropping bombs and ships exploding having the feel of Transformers rather than the real tragedies of war, thereby failing to effectively portray this tragedy.
Indeed, the pitfalls of Pearl Harbor summarise why it can be hard to effectively portray tragic events on film. It can be too easy to gloss over the horrors and instead focus on grand spectacle in an attempt to win over a larger audience. It is the films that pull their punches by showing the extent of the horror of the event at hand, like the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, which ultimately succeed to the greatest extent in being respectful and accurate. Both elements can be combined effectively, as seen with Everest. Ultimately films should not trade off their respect for the subject matter, in favour of gaudy spectacle.