Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul is the kind of documentary to watch while curled up in a blanket. Not because you can, but because you’ll want to.
The title is well chosen. Into The Cold is a film written and directed by photographer and activist Sebastian Copeland, and it chronicles Copeland’s 2009 quest to hike to the North Pole. During the journey, Copeland and his expedition partner Keith Heger experience temperatures averaging -40 degrees. It’s a point on the thermometer where Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same — maybe because when it’s that cold, it just doesn’t matter anymore.
The themes of Into the Cold do matter, however. Far more than a vanity adventure, Copeland says his expedition was inspired by the centenary of Admiral Robert Peary’s 1909 trek to the North Pole, but Copeland adds that, given the current rates of global warming and the consequent loss of Arctic sea ice, he doesn’t believe a bicentennial trek by future generations will be possible.
As a photographer, Copeland’s stated mission is to capture the beauty of the frozen Arctic in hopes that people who see his photos will be inspired to work to reverse the effects of global warming. Because most people have never seen the Arctic landscape, Copeland fears apathy and inaction. “We will not save what we do not love,” he says.
There are a number of global-warming films out there, notably An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore and The Age of Stupid featuring the late Pete Postlethwaite. Into the Cold brings a fresh point-of-view to that canon by dint of its message delivered from the disappearing polar ice cap.
The first half of the film centers on Copeland’s preparation for his mission. It’s vital to the story because a North Pole expedition is no trifle. When the training is complete, Copeland and Heger find themselves in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Prior to the men’s departure, they share a meal with the Inuit people of Resolute Bay, who talk about how the effects of global warming have altered their ages-old lifestyle, giving an immediate and human look at the changes the Artic Ocean community is experiencing.
In a conference room of a spartan hotel, the two explorers take on the onerous task of weighing their food supply and loading it onto their sleds, calculating the exact maximum of food each is able to haul. It’s at this point in the film where the gravity of the mission — the fact that the men may not survive — becomes clear.
As the men are being flown to their remote starting point, aerial shots of the Arctic ice sheet are seen as a haunting soundtrack plays, sequences that work very well to foreshadow the impending chill and isolation.
Once the trek is underway, there are many times when one of the men struggles to surmount overwhelming ice-rubble fields while the other remains at a distance, objectively filming the scene. Copeland, Heger and editor Matthew Booth deserve praise for making it appear as if the journey were filmed by a third-party film crew. Booth’s tight editing choices smooth out the requisite camera hand-offs that would have taken place between Copeland and Heger, resulting in a seamless narrative that conveys the grueling trip in unrelenting cold.
In the face of the forces of nature, Copeland and Heger bring their own humanity to the story through the use of video-diary entries. Interior tent sequences capture the adventurers struggling to prepare food and to keep warm with the use of a single-canister propane stove-cum-heater. Copeland, despite his Zen-like disposition, begins to betray some frustration with Mother Nature. Heger, meanwhile, provides counterpoint with his Woody Harrelson-esque, gee-willikers cheeriness that never seems to wane.
There are elements of the story that don’t work as well. Although there is suspense in Into the Cold, some narrative choices undermine the tension. In 2012, two high-profile films — Lincoln and Argo — were based on actual events where the outcomes were well known. Those films succeeded in ratcheting up the tension to the point audiences were able to suspend disbelief even though the finalés are historically documented. With Into the Cold, however, some intercut interviews defuse the suspense. As a result, the film struggles to avoid anticlimax.
The sole DVD extra is a trailer for Copeland’s book Antarctica: A Global Warning. The images in the trailer are striking, helped by the fact Antarctica is inhabited by penguins, seals, whales and other species, adding life and interest to the frozen surroundings. The Antarctica trailer is an interesting contrast to Into the Cold; although Copeland works hard to communicate the immense power of the Arctic’s ice floes, its molecularly altered snow crystals, the bluish blocks of plate ice and the near extinction of multiyear ice, the polar zone is essentially devoid of life.
Nevertheless, the adventure undertaken by Copeland and Heger is gripping — even if it means gripping a big mug of hot cocoa while watching.