We gave it a B
Admit it: Your own interest in this story is pretty schizophrenic. On one hand, you’re stunned into silence by the human will needed for 16 Uruguayan rugby players to survive a 1972 plane crash and live for 72 days in a snowfield high in the Andes. On the other hand, you’re drawn to the incident’s seamiest aspect — that the young men kept themselves alive by eating the bodies of the dead.
A successful telling of this story has to be honest, then, covering the stoic and the sensational sides of the coin. Piers Paul Read’s 1974 book, Alive, pulled it off in 352 pages, but filmmakers have to choose and trim, with an eye toward drama. In the process, they take sides. Back in 1976, a fictionalized movie rip-off of Alive surfaced on the drive-in circuit; called Survive! and directed by Mexican exploitation-meister Rene Cardona, it’s remarkably pure sleaze, like a New York Post headline unfolding in real time. You want cannibalism? the movie leers. Here it is on a plate.
Survive! isn’t available on video, but now Alive is after a brief run in theaters earlier this year. As engrossing as it is, the movie still tells only half the story: the other, nobler half. The tape you really want to rent is Alive: 20 Years Later, a 50-minute tie-in documentary. It’s here where paradoxes merge — the horrible and heroic, profound and mundane, spiritual and lurid — and you believe because you’re hearing the events from the mouths of men who lived them.
You may want to watch Alive first, though, since it lays out the facts in stolid, Classics Illustrated fashion. Director Frank Marshall films the plane crash with a high-tech realism that terrifyingly establishes the forces the young men will be up against. Once on the ground, Alive focuses on the interplay between the survivors, with crisis creating natural leaders out of two of the men, Nando Parrado (Ethan Hawke) and Roberto Canessa (Josh Hamilton).
The two make an interesting pair — Nando is headstrong, determined, willing to take risks; Roberto is efficient, cerebral, tortured by doubt — and their odd-couple relationship ends up driving the movie, if only by default. The rest of the survivors are merely sketched with defining traits: One’s a chain-smoker, one’s an atheist, one’s a coward. The generic dialogue hurts, too; screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, whose ear for loopy speech patterns made Moonstruck such a pleasure, was clearly the wrong choice.
When it comes to the cannibalism, Alive is unblinking — and dismissive. The survivors briefly discuss the ethics of the matter early on, then do what they must; neither they nor the film refer to it explicitly after that. That’s probably close to what happened: The outraged fascination came later, from people who weren’t on that mountain and who never had to make that decision. Yet it’s safe to say that if cannibalism hadn’t occurred, this movie wouldn’t be here. So how do you reconcile the gross banality of the event with the melodrama of the world’s reaction?
Watching Alive: 20 Years Later, you see that it’s a question the real-life survivors now struggle with every day. The documentary is at its weakest when it visits the Alive set; a scene of director Marshall blithely bragging about the many layers of clothing he has to wear to keep warm can’t help but seem callow. But whenever 20 Years Later plunks down to listen to the survivors speak, it is devastating.
Happily married for the most part, they’ve become successful community leaders in a suburb of Montevideo, Uruguay. Roberto Canessa, a respected surgeon, is even running for the country’s presidency. Yet each man is eternally haunted, less by the cannibalism (”If we decided not to eat, we would have been turning our backs on the miracle,” says one straightforwardly) than by the memory of an endurance that only 15 other men on the planet can share. You get a sense of it in the jerky, black-and-white news footage of their rescue, as well as in the scene where three of the men visit the Alive set in the Rockies, stepping timidly through the fake plane wreckage. ”It’s like living the same life again,” one remarks. To which another softly replies, ”But this one will end.” At such moments, the documentary does something that all of Alive never quite manages. It moves you with the real weight of life and death. C+