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A less than inspiring documentary about extremely inspiring individuals, “High Ground” is worth seeing for what it shows rather than how it shows it. As a director and cinematographer, Michael Brown has had a career’s worth of experience taking cameras up the sides of mountains, and this time he follows a group of veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as they scale Mt. Lobuche in the Himalayas. One of the climbers is blind, three have prosthetic legs, and all are suffering from physical and emotional traumas they can barely articulate. The arduous trek to the icy 20,075-foot summit is as much about planting a flag in their ongoing recovery as human beings as it is about shared experiences of battle and its aftermath.
The Soldiers to Summits program offers therapy through ascent, and one of the Lobuche party points out early on how similar mountaineering is to the military in planning, preparedness, teamwork, and the need to improvise at a moment’s notice. We follow the group from test runs in the Rockies and downtime in Kathmandu to the increasingly harsh terrain of the base camps leading to the summit. None of this is more difficult than coping with the visible and unseen scars of what the climbers experienced in war.
There are 11 veterans and we hear each of their stories, all hard but necessary listening. Steven Baskis, blinded when his armored vehicle was destroyed by an IED, climbs to commemorate a fallen comrade and to grab what he can with his four remaining senses. The two Chads, Jukes and Butrick, each lost a leg in battle and soldier up the mountain with joyful tenacity. Ironically, it’s the veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress who have the hardest time, since they can’t put their hands on their injuries. Marine Staff Sergeants Katherine “Rizzo” Ragazzino and Cody Miranda form a touching bond as they struggle to move beyond the base camp for the final ascent; for them, the issue of leaving platoonmates behind carries unimaginable weight.
These stories and the others are tremendously moving even as the filmmakers serve them up with a talking-head style that turns monotonous over the long haul. There’s not much art to “High Ground,” and maybe there doesn’t need to be, but it still would help. You can sense Brown and his team of writers shaping the material for maximum uplift, a synth score cueing us what to feel at every step. As Sherpas go, they’re awfully insistent.
“High Ground” is valuable nevertheless, for the heartbreaking individual struggles it documents and for the light it shines on the wars that continue on in the hearts, minds, and souls of returning veterans. By the final scenes, a viewer realizes that Lobuche is just one of many peaks these men and women will have to scale, and it’s far from the highest.