Review: Finding Michael

Finding Michael


Back In Nepal

In May 1999, 22-year-old Michael Matthews became the youngest Briton to successfully climb Mt Everest, before he disappeared during the descent. 23 years later Michael’s brother Spencer, seeking closure from the gaping wound his family suffered when his brother was declared lost, organises an expedition to the Himalayas in the hope of finding Michael’s body and bringing it home at last.

Up until last week when I took in Finding Michael, I only knew about Spencer Matthews as a sort of side character of My Therapist Ghosted Me, a podcast hosted by his wife, Vogue Williams, and comedian Joanne McNally, that my girlfriend and I both enjoy. From that the picture I had formed was of something of a well-off influencer-type, a Made In Chelsea alum, with an impressive sex drive going by the stories, balancing it out by being a good father to three children. But there was a lot more there than I realised. The story of Michael Matthews is the kind that would haunt any family, regardless of wealth or societal position, and the outlining of the facts surrounding his disappearance is more than enough to remind you that tragic accident and grief is a uniting factor across all strata of society.

But even with that, I had reservations about Finding Michael going in, and for the first half of the production, that was seriously affecting my opinion of it. They could be summed up by the simple question of “Why film this?” We know what Spencer Matthews is getting out of the search for his brothers body, but what is he getting out of filming the entire experience with his face on camera every five seconds? That is to say, there was a self-promotional sheen to Finding Michael that I found curious, and a little bit distasteful if I am being honest: it was very difficult to completely dispel the idea that a large part of this exercise was more about Spencer Matthews and his social media following than anything else. The mission of Finding Michael was to find a way to puncture that viewpoint and, to its immense credit, it did just that. From its depiction of a brotherly relationship cut tragically short to the heart-warming conclusion, it upends expectations.

Retrieving a body from the heights of Mt Everest – and there are a lot of bodies up there, something in the region of 300 or so since records started being kept a century ago – is a very difficult process, something that Finding Michael takes its time outlining, but a topic I had a bit of prior knowledge on (see this excellent article from a few years back on the topic). In the “death zone” above 8’000 metres, having a well of energy to move yourself and your equipment up the mountain and then back down it is task enough, before you consider the difficulty of hauling down those whose own energy ran out. It’s not impossible per say, but the expense, in terms of manpower, supplies and, well, money, to get it done mean that it is something that can only be attempted for a very small number of people. And that’s before you realise that just as big an issue is the fact that no one knows where exactly Michael Matthews died: there’s over 20 years of snowfall, fading clothes and similarly clad climbers dying to take into account there too, in an environment where is is not possible to have a sustained look around.

It takes a while for Spencer Matthews to have to face-up to the facts, and his lack of engagement with reality is not helped by a whirlwind of talking heads, with Bear Grylls probably the most notable, who all insist that it is perfectly possible for him to succeed. It’s only when he gets to the base camp of Everest that he runs hard into what can and cannot be done, with local Sherpas and other experienced climbers much quicker to downplay the chances of finding Michael. Spencer himself does not join the expedition to the roof of the world, though it isn’t seemingly because of a lack of desire or a sense of superiority: the father of three children, the last born just days before he departs to the Himalayas, it’s something that is simply not feasible for him to risk. I will admit that him being left in base camp communicating with the search time via radio does hurt whatever sense of drama Finding Michael is trying to create, but it couldn’t really be anything else.

It’s here that Finding Michael turned for me. I don’t want to “spoil” the movie, insofar as you can spoil the outcome of a documentary. But the last act of Finding Michael does elevate it hugely in my eyes, both through the depiction of the search for Michael Matthews’ body, and through the subsequent actions of his brother. Suffice to say that there are many ways of dealing with long-held grief, when the practicalities of normal grieving are no longer available to you: sometimes a gesture towards someone else, even complete strangers, can be enough to undertake that process. Spencer was transformed himself in my eyes in that process, from a guy who seemed at pains to try and build a wall over a vainglorious mission where he was front and centre, to someone fundamentally more decent, who recognised just what his brother would have wanted in such dire circumstances. And if Finding Michael is about grief, then it is also about the universality of that concept: many more families are dealing with the same feeling that the Matthews family are, and reaching out to that unique community is a healing all of its own.

What is missing, and it is only fair to point it out, is any examination of just why people – predominantly men, and predominantly rich men at that – choose to risk their lives and the infliction of grief on their loved ones just to stand on top of the world for a few brief moments. Michael Matthews is depicted in only heroic terms, and part of me wonders if we might not have gotten a more honest assessment if we could see even the slightest bit of anger or regret on the faces of some of those family members. And Finding Michael isn’t of a mind to really examine the class issue here, not too much anyway: the locals are poor enough that they will risk their lives to undertake these kinds of tasks, while Spencer and his family are rich enough to facilitate this. The morality in this is touched upon, but only briefly. It’s not the thesis of Finding Michael.

Director Tom Beard, with a back catalogue mostly from TV, gives us a pretty well-made production. It’s reality-TV style in many ways, following Spencer into peoples homes as if they aren’t really there, with plenty of talking heads mixed in, but later a few more inventive things are tried. As Spencer gets to the Himalayas and starts the ascent, we get comparison shots between his climb and that undertaken by his brother decades before, which help to really get across how tantalisingly close the two points in time and space really are. And the use of drones, both for the search and to get some truly special glimpses of the top most region of Everest, are exceptional also. More than anything else, Finding Michael gets across how harsh life is in this part of the world where a simple walk up a slope is a death defying exercise.

Finding Michael surprised me. My preconceived notions about Spencer Matthews and my fears about just what this documentary was for turned out to be wide of the mark, as preconceived notions do tend to be. In their place I find an unexpectedly engaging depiction of a young man attempting to find closure for himself and his family for a tragedy whose wound has never fully healed, and having to do so in an unorthodox, but very credible manner. The film serves as both a fitting tribute to the spirt of Michael Matthews and to the decisions taken on the journey to try and recover his remains, honouring his legacy and his personality. It’s only his body on the mountain, and Finding Michael makes clear that his soul has long now be sent to a peaceful rest. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Disney+).

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