"High Ground" is a moving documentary that is both the film it presents itself to be and something more. And that something more turns out to have the biggest, most lasting impact.
Nominally the story of healing and mental rehabilitation, of a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas for 11 wounded and traumatized combat veterans, its most compelling segments deal with the pain, not the triumph. In its ability to let us hear firsthand what life-and-death combat does to the human body and spirit, this film has few peers.
Directed by three-time Emmy winner and adventure filmmaker Michael Brown, "High Ground" is on one level the record of an October 2010 expedition to climb Nepal's Lobuche East, a 20,075-foot peak just down the road from Mt. Everest.
This showcase climb, aided by World T.E.A.M. Sports, a support organization intent on showing veterans what is possible in their lives, had the help of Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to summit Everest itself.
Weihenmayer's skills proved key to the success of 2006's "Blindsight," a documentary of a few years back that showed him working with a group of sightless Tibetan teens as they climbed a different Himalayan peak.
But even though "High Ground" offers a deeply stirring view of the unmistakable good this climb does for the men and women involved, they themselves know it's not going to heal them and are not shy about letting you know why that's the case.
"High Ground" excels at allowing these often edgy and distressed people to be themselves on camera, to allow us to hear the horrors that befell them and see what those events did to every aspect of their beings.
The film's opening interview montage gives us a sense of what is to come. In quick succession, one combat veteran after another says things that are sure to disturb: "I feel like an alien in my own country"; "I'm never going to be the person I was"; "We don't want to remember our memories"; "I feel like a disposable razor."
All 11 of the climbers got screen time — director Brown and his team shot 75 hours of footage that got edited down to a tight 91 minutes — and each of them makes a memorable impression.
Army National Guard Capt. Aaron "Ike" Isaacson says he never talks about how bad things get for him because he wants to be able to redeploy, and Navy veteran Nicolette "Nico" Maroulis insists "being uncomfortable is my comfort zone." Now ambulatory after three and a half years in a wheelchair, she recalls that "everyone looked at me as broken. They missed who I was."
But even in this group, three people stand out for the nature of their experiences and their candor in relating them, starting with the Army's Steve Baskis, who was blinded and badly burned after being hit by a piece of superheated shrapnel and says he is waiting for "someone to turn the TV back on."
The post-traumatic stress disorder wounds of the Army National Guard's Ashley Crandall are psychological, not physical, but after hearing her stories, no one can doubt their intensity. Except that when she made them public, people did, leaving her to grapple with the question of whether she had a right to military medical help even as her world was crumbling.
Perhaps the most riveting combination of story and dramatic personality is Marine Corps Sgt. Dan Sidles, who remembers an awful day under intense fire in Fallouja, Iraq, as being "in the worst neighborhood in the worst city in the worst country in the world."
Sidles is especially articulate about his attempts to readjust to a civilian world where, unlike the Marines, you can't grab people by the shirt front and push them up against a wall if they mess up. "I feel emotionally like I've lived my whole life," he says before the climb. "The tank's empty."
The only non-veteran on the climb is Lona Parten, a mother whose son died in Afghanistan. When she says "it's grief, it's pain, but still you take that next step," she is speaking not only of the trek up the mountain but the walk through life as well.
MPAA rating: not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena