The flood of documentaries in recent years about high-risk climbing and mountaineering have offered plenty of vicarious armchair athleticism, to be sure. But for viewers with a more casual than envious interest in such adventures, it’s hard not to wonder: Do these daredevils have personal attachments? Who’d be reckless or masochistic enough to forge a serious relationship with someone who constantly tempts fate? That issue did get addressed in the hit “Free Solo” three years ago, which devoted attention to ropeless climber Alex Honnold’s first long-term romantic commitment, which naturally renders his day job a greater source of worry to both parties.
But most of these films simply avoid the “What, if any, private life?” question in favor of alfresco thrills — understandably enough, since most of their subjects pointedly haven’t hazarded any settled domesticity that might hobble their sportsmanship. The new “Torn,” on the other hand, is entirely about the worst-case-scenario toll a dangerous avocation might levy on a mountain climber and their loved ones.
The compelling film, which National Geographic begins releasing to theaters on Dec. 3 (followed by a Disney Plus debut early next year), is a first feature for Max Lowe, whose late father was considered by some “the best-ever” climber-explorer, equally adept at scaling rock, ice and mountain. Alex Lowe is seen here, in one of many archival clips, saying, “There’s no doubt that something in my chemistry is attracted to risk,” though he also considered his “boldness tempered with enough experience to know my limits.” Others found his energy and skill near limitless, however, including Conrad Anker, another extraordinary climber — albeit one willing to accept No. 2 status in their “dynamic duo” once the men became dedicated sporting partners.
When Alex met his future wife, artist Jennifer considered the prospects of going out with someone of his ilk limited to a “fun fling.” But the relationship endured, and turned to marriage. Even so, it was seven years before they had a child. Lowe had considered dialing down his activity level to accommodate this new family life. Instead, after a high-profile Everest trip accepted for the lucrative pay, he found himself in global demand. With two more sons soon arriving, his constant travel and risk were a source of internal as well as domestic conflict.
He was reportedly again seriously mulling scaling back in October 1999, when he and cameraman David Bridges were caught in an avalanche on Shishapangma in the Tibetan Himalayas. Anker, whom instinct led to run in the other direction, survived as the others vanished. Lowe was just 40.
Two decades later, middle son Sam says he no longer has “any solid memories” of his father, while youngest Isaac (3 years old at the time of the disaster) considers him “like some sort of dream.” Nonetheless, he loomed very large in death over all of them, not excluding Anker, who in his commingled grief and guilt immediately devoted himself to the young family. Within months, he and Jennifer became a couple. It was as close as possible to a “seamless transition” for the two junior boys, albeit not 10-year-old Max, whose feelings were further complicated by the belief that his father might still return — a delusion encouraged by letters sent from base camp that only arrived after his disappearance.
Though “Torn” flirts with filmmaking-as-therapy, it doesn’t dig discomfitingly deep. Jennifer briefly mentions Alex’s more volatile side, noting, “He wasn’t a perfect character,” but that’s as much sullying as the heroic image gets. Passing mention is made of detractors who “said mean things” about the widow and best friend’s hasty courtship. Nor does Max detail his issues with Anker — he was the sole family member not to adopt his stepfather’s name, but simply shrugs, “I don’t know why I did that,” when the subject is raised. (It would also be nice to learn a little more about his brothers’ lives.)
Nonetheless, “Torn” can hardly help being moving, because of the dramatic events and personalities involved. Alex Lowe remains a strappingly charismatic figure in plentiful archival footage here. The weight of “living in [his] shadow” only grows more acute when his and Bridges’ remains are finally found, 17 years later. A family trip to Tibet to reclaim them and subsequent events bring this documentary to a suitably memorial yet forward-looking close.
With all participants well-practiced in this sort of project (Max Lowe is an established commercial and travel photographer), “Torn” has lots of handsome outdoor imagery from around the world, with even the 1990s footage of Alex Lowe representing a then-high bar for digital camera technology. If there’s a bit of slick corporate impersonality to the National Geographic packaging, the content remains involving, and the swift editorial pace has no lulls to risk losing viewer attention.