So many times, when film footage is recreated for a documentary, it has none of the power that actual film footage has. And the recreated footage usually does not have the dramatic power normally associated with a narrative film because documentaries don’t usually have the budget necessary for proper sets, special effects or access to good actors.
But, Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed In The Mountains. . . manages to intermix old film footage, a handful of real still photographs, new film shot in the actual locations of the disaster along with LOTS of recreated film footage into a stunning mix that makes Stranded the best documentary on a disaster I have seen in a long time.
The basic story is well known. In October 1972, a small plane carrying a group of Uruguayan rugby players took off for neighboring Chile and disappeared in the Andes Mountains. Rescuers were dispatched on both land and air, but no one could locate the wrecked plane and all passengers were thought lost. Although the plane had crashed, there were 29 survivors, many of them uninjured.
These young men would now embark on an ordeal of survival unrivaled in history. They would be pushed to physical extremes like surviving unfathomable cold and hunger to getting buried in an avalanche. They would be pushed to great mental limits by seeing so many friends die along with resorting to cannibalism to survive. When you consider that sixteen would ultimately survive the ordeal, the fact that this story still captures the imagination should come as no surprise.
The truth is most everyone only wants to hear about the cannibalism. The fact that the filmmakers very skillfully handle this delicate aspect of the story without exploiting it for its tabloid appeal is admirable.
There are a few moments where I groaned though, like when one of the survivors tells us he had a bad feeling about getting on the doomed plane in the first place. Is this true? Who knows? I just wish some of these people who all say AFTER an accident that they knew this was going to happen, would have opened their mouths beforehand. Another man intones with solemnity that they took off on Friday the 13th. Well, so did ten thousand others planes that day and none of them crashed in the mountains.
In any case, since there were precious few real photos of this event, the filmmakers had to resort to staging recreations and I commend the imagination of the director, cinematographer and actors for making what could have been cheesy actually interesting cinematically.
We hear from some of the helicopter rescue pilots talking about their early forays into the mountains to look for the missing plane. One pilot explains the problem of looking for pieces of tiny wreckage in these huge mountains. Then we see the snowy peaks and valleys from his point of view and your heart sinks because you suddenly realize that seeing some small speck of wreckage from this height will be almost impossible.
I had to laugh when a desperate family member contacts a well-known psychic for help in locating the downed plane. Her psychic powers lead her to offer this “helpful” information. They should look for a white plane, which will be hard to see in the snowy mountains. Also, the wings will be missing and the fuselage will be partly buried. Thanks a lot! Did the psychic offer any useful information like where exactly the plane was, or how many people survived? Not a chance! Useless moronic psychic, God how I hate them!
Stranded is a long film, but I was never bored for even a second, especially when they find the tail of the plane, and along with a radio battery (that sadly doesn’t work) they also find a camera. These pictures taken by the survivors in the middle of their ordeal are stunning. Yet, despite everything, they all manage to smile when a group picture is taken. Still, these photos have a raw power that silenced the audience I saw the film with.
Two survivors hike out of the mountains to get help and against all odds, they succeed. Fortunately the moment is not played like a heroic victory. It is admirably downplayed. The men get help and immediately fly back to rescue their buddies.
Of course, after the rescue, the press was immediately skeptical about how the men survived for more than 70 days without food. What DID they eat? Some doctors added to the confusion by saying there is nothing known to medical science that would explain how these guys could have survived. Take it from me people, when a so-called “doctor” starts telling you there is no known scientific cause for some phenomena, be wary. It usually means the doctor has fallen into the fallacy of ignorance. He can’t explain the phenomena rationally, so therefore, it can’t be explained rationally. This is why you get second opinions.
As it turns out, the survivors were not being coy or disingenuous about eating their dead comrades for survival, it’s just they knew that fact would be sensationalized, blown out of proportion and misunderstood. They wanted to speak to the families of their dead friends first and not have them hear about it from lurid newspaper descriptions.
The end of the film shows some of the survivors back at the place that was their home for 72 days in late 1972. As they gather at the metal cross that marks the spot (the bodies have long been buried, the plane fuselage destroyed), they remark that it was the death of their friends that allowed them to be here today with their children and grandchildren and they owe their dead friends everything.