Profiles in human courage: Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Peter Weir’s The Way Back

by Mark Burger

127 Hours , which opens Friday, is director Danny Boyle’s first film since Slumdog Millionaire (2008) won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The new film dramatizes the story of Aron Ralston, the mountain climber who wrote about the ordeal detailed here in his non-fiction best-seller Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

Given how well publicized Ralston’s story and subsequent book have been, it’s divulging nothing to reveal that the adventurous, impetuous athlete was forced to amputate his own right arm after being trapped in a Utah cavern for five days, the unfortunate limb wedged behind an immovable boulder. The odds against such an occurrence are astronomical, and the odds against surviving such an occurrence probably even more.

That’s the climax of the story, but it’s in the events leading up to that fateful (but not fatal) decision that Boyle’s filmmaking wizardry thrives. 127 Hours is a graphic film, but its inherent grimness is offset with amazing adroitness by the sheer energy and ingenuity (some of it visual, much of it emotional) that Boyle brings to the proceedings.

Before Aron, played by James Franco, finds himself in his predicament, the film is exhilarating in its energy and beauty, the desert location captured in dazzling fashion by cinematographers Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle.

Then, with one slip, Aron tumbles into the crevice and the camera tumbles with him. That the subsequent imagery doesn’t become dull in its repetition is an example of Boyle’s expediency. 127 Hours doesn’t prolong its principal character’s agony, although it persuasively depicts it.

For five days, Aron considers his options, reflects on his life and attempts to figure out his next course of action. He even manages, in a few well-placed moments, to recognize the gallows humor of the situation he’s in. Boyle and writing partner Simon Beaufoy have achieved what might have seemed impossible: They have made a film that resolutely refuses and avoids being a depressing experience. On the contrary, even in its most cruel moment (take a wild guess), there is an unmistakable sense of relief and even triumph.

Franco is basically the whole show here and is enormously empathetic, in a role admittedly designed to be as such, but it’s certainly a high-water mark for the actor, who also scored recently as poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl. Franco is scheduled to host the Academy Awards next month, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he’ll be a nominee as well.

Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara are fetching as a pair of hikers with whom Aron flirts before his mishap, and there are brief flashbacks and/or hallucinations of Treat Williams, Lizzy Caplan and Kate Burton as others in Aron’s life. In the end, however, 127 Hours belongs to Franco, and to Boyle, and also to Aron Ralston, whose appearance over the end credits adds an even more triumphant note to one of 2010’s best films.

The Way Back , which marks director Peter Weir’s first film since 2004’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, is itself a dramatization of true events — although how true have been the point of some contention.

Set in 1941, the film follows a group of prisoners (Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Jim Sturgess among them) who have been sentenced to a Siberian gulag. With little to lose — except their lives, of course — they make a break for freedom, crossing some 4,000 miles(!) of terrain in their escape attempt.

Pursuit by Communist forces is initially a secondary consideration; the guards in the gulag are unlikely to mount a serious attempt. The weather and the terrain are lethal enough obstacles. To survive in this punishing environment is not necessarily a victory over Mother Nature as a grueling compromise. The lay of the land is the law of the land. Those who dare trespass are dancing with death, a fact not lost on the desperate escapees.

The characters tend to have been written in archetypical terms and some events have been condensed, all the better to achieve a more manageable running time. Sturgess, a former soldier, is the Sensitive One. Harris, an expatriate American in the wrong place at the wrong time, is the Wise, Grizzled One. Farrell, as a thief and murderer, is the Wild One. During the journey, they are joined by Saorise Ronan as a Polish refugee — she being the Innocent of the story. All acquit themselves nobly.

Each character has his or her own reason for being imprisoned or persecuted, and each has a legitimate reason for wanting to escape the clutches of Communism — whose reach extends well past the geographic boundaries which existed before they began their trek. Not all of them will survive, but each can take comfort (such as it is) in the daunting attempt.

Weir is careful also to keep the story’s sentiment (some of it inescapable) in context. As a result, The Way Back is both an affecting and effective drama, a film whose emotional heft leaves one as much exhausted, perhaps more so, as entertained. This sort of tale was once the purview of the television mini-series, yet the big-screen presentation (and Russel Boyd’s cinematography) certainly makes an impression. Filmed mostly in Bulgaria, the locations are stark, foreboding and eerily beautiful. Nice to look at, but you wouldn’t want to be stuck there.

There has been some controversy over the historical accuracy of this story, which Weir and Keith R. Clarke adapted from Slamovir Rawicz’ novel. Even if the film were a complete work of fiction, it succeeds as a story well told. The Way Back is a good movie, although a hard one.

Like Danny Boyle, Weir’s films have a humanist bent. No matter how large the scope, the two filmmakers have always made a sincere attempt to focus on the characters who figure in the grand landscape. It’s an all-toorare quality in filmmaking today.

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