As the Sundance film festival kicks off in Park City, Utah, the biggest story on the ground wasn’t which movies were getting distribution deals, which celebs were in town, or which parties would be the hottest. The biggest story was just what the hell happened with Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football player whose dead girlfriend turned out to be a hoax. That is, until Lance Armstrong appeared on Oprah to admit to doping while winning several Tour de France titles. Then, the chatter was all about that.
As the start of the fest’s movies output, the transplanted hoi polloi are finally talking about movies. Friday’s premiere of The Summit came along at just the right time to connect to both of these stories and comment on how the narrative functions in our understanding of sports. A documentation of a 2008 climb to the summit of K2 – the second highest mountain peak in the world (upon which 11 climbers died trying to descend) – The Summit is ultimately about one Irish climber, Ger McDonnell, and how we tell his story.
As harrowing as the footage from the actual climb, as collected by director Nick Ryan, is, the most interesting part of the film is about how the tale is reconstructed by the survivors (none of whom know the full story), and how that was transmitted to the public by the media. In particular, this Irish-funded film is concerned with rescuing the reputation of McDonnell, an Irishman who it argues died after climbing back up the mountain to rescue stranded climbers (all of whom ultimately died) rather than descending.
In a news culture that has every outlet fighting to get the scoop first, most media accounts relied heavily on the information of Italian climber Marco Confortola, who was airlifted off the mountain and arrived first before the TV cameras. By the time McDonnell’s friend and companion Pemba Gyalje Sherpa hiked down, the reporters were gone. They missed his story, about his heroics. But who is right? And how do we ever know the truth? Only the mountain really knows.
Climber Martin Bonnati, one of the first climbers to scale the mountain in 1954 (whose story is also central to the film), says that the two climbers who made it to the summit never gave him proper credit for his contributions to their ascent. He says that for 30 years, he’s been “provoked, accused, and slandered,” with rumors accusing him of absconding with the team’s oxygen, and leaving the others to fend for himself. Finally, in 2011, he was finally recognized by the Italian government for his role in the country’s triumph. Bonnati says that it’s not the mountain that matters so much as the story. The same is true of Te’o and Armstrong. We aren’t as concerned with their football wins or cycling victories as we are with how they got there and the consequences thereafter. It’s not the fact that he reached the summit that’s important for McDonnell’s family (which he did), but how he is remembered in the wake of the tragedy. As his wife points out, if he had succeeded, it would have been the best mountaineering story in history. Instead he’s just one part of a scandal.
The act of climbing a mountain (or winning a game, or biking across the finish line first) might only last a few days or a season or even a few minutes. What remains forever is the narrative. Who is telling it and how it is shaped is as important as the actual events that fed into it in the first place. That’s why we do these things in the first place, as much for the actual act as to tell the story about it. As the truth about Te’o comes out in drips and drabs, and as Armstrong confesses everything to Oprah in an attempt to save his reputation, The Summit shows us that what we are remembered for is even more important that what we’ve done.
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