The Wildest Dream’s premise alone should make it a riveting documentary. In 1999, as part of a Nova expedition, climber Conrad Anker found the preserved body of George Mallory on Mount Everest. Mallory, who famously told The New York Times that the reason to climb Everest is “Because it is there,” died on the mountain in 1924, alongside partner Sandy Irvine; they were last seen 800 feet from the summit. No one knows whether they reached the peak, but if so, they were the first, nearly 30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary officially claimed the honor—and the body’s placement and other circumstantial evidence suggest he might have been descending from the summit rather than ascending to it. So to prove Mallory could have made the climb, Anker attempts it in similar fashion, with ’20s gear and without the ladder that’s gotten climbers past the mountain’s treacherous “Second Step” cliff since the ’60s.
Any attempt at climbing Everest is potentially lethal, and these handicaps, plus the central mystery, plus the climb’s spectacular vistas, seem like an unbeatable combination. But first-time director Anthony Geffen, a veteran TV producer, defeats the story’s best qualities by wrapping it in a plodding, conventional shell. Celebrities ponderously read letters from the era, for instance between Mallory (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and his wife (Natasha Richardson, in her last film project before her 2009 skiing death). Painfully formal talking-head interviews and stiff re-creations shape the storytelling, and ridiculously literal visualizations (a lone boot lying forlornly in the snow to represent a fatal avalanche, for instance) illustrate other segments. As the story lurches from stage to stage, simplistic, intrusive music crashes or whimpers to dictate each new wave of overwrought sentiment.
The film doesn’t need any of these awkward trappings, or Liam Neeson’s purple narration. As Geffen intercuts Mallory’s history with Anker’s journey, he captures two terrific stories, and the contrasts between them show both how much and how little impact nearly a century has had on the process of the climb and the type of people who attempt it. And the footage from Everest is breathtaking. But it’s still a study in gilding the lily, and talking down to an audience that shouldn’t need this much overstatement. Given the subject matter, the answer to “Why watch this doc?” should be “Because it is fantastic.” But Geffen, like Everest, will have to settle for “Because it is there.”