So what's the worst day you've ever had then? A bad day at school or college? Did you get stuck in a traffic jam? Did your boss shout at you? Did the dog take a dump on the carpet? Whatever your worst day was, it's unlikely that it's anything like Joe Simpsons and Simon Yates worst day.Peru, 1985. Joe and Simon want to make history by being the first climbers to climb the ominous and very, very VERY high Siula Grande unaided. As it turns out getting up there isn't the difficult part. Aside from the usual difficulties associated with mountain climbing, it's not a bad trek at all. Getting down however is a decidely different matter. It's best not too read too many details going into 'Touching The Void', but suffice to say it involves the two climbers being forcibly seperated, life-threatening injuries, 100-foot plunges down crevaces and a general lack of food or water. And piss-stained trousers. Put it this way, I'd struggle to make it down the stairs with a mangled limb let alone from the top of a mountain.
MacDonald has chosen for his documentary to combine re-creation with testimony to camera from the two climbers. So we know from the outset that both climbers do (eventually) make it back down. Does it make it any less riveting? Not a bit. The recreated footage looks superb, a thousand times more realistic than 'Vertical Limit' and 'Cliffhanger' put together, but even more amazing is the matter of fact way Joe and Simon calmly state what happened to them. So any time you start to cynically think "There's no way they'd survive anything like that..." up pop Joe and Simon to remind you that actually, yes, they did...and it bloody well hurt too.
This means that it also works in the best way a documentary can - by capturing the raw emotion of the events. While the actors re-creating the climb have a largely thankless task of yelling pain or generally incoherent dialogue into a raging blizzard, we see the painful scars still etched into Joe and Simons mind just by looking into their eyes. A moment where one of them recollects a particularly painful moment and his voice cracks with the memory, is a moment a lot of actors would struggle to replicate.
Could MacDonald have told the story another way and kept us gripped as to who would make it down? Perhaps through fiction, but then we'd be missing the first-hand voice of Joe and Simon. Could he have still kept the ending a secret through re-creation? Possibly yes, but you'll still be chewing your nails until it stings.
And the final revelation of some of the attitudes towards the climbers from associates that still linger to this day are just as sharp a shock as anything they encounter up the mountain.Ultimately the re-created footage does begin to sag towards the end, but then nothing can compare to reality can it? We may not get any answers or insight as to why these people do what they do, but when you're hanging off the edge of a cliff with just a rope an inch thick between you and a nasty splat at the bottom of the mountain are you really going to be in any state to ask those sort of questions?