Monday, March 14, 2011

I Am Alive – Surviving the Andes Plane Crash DVD Review

On October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed in the Andes Mountains with forty-five passengers aboard.  Due to pilot error, their flight plan and position was incorrect which led search patrol to look for survivors in the wrong area and eventually to abandon the plane and passengers as lost.  Left to survive on their own, the ill-equipped survivors had to survive in one of the most desolate places in the world and make choices that no human being should ever be forced to make in order to survive.


Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

When Flight 571 mistakenly descended into the Andes mountains due to pilot error, its passengers were heading for a rugby game in Chile.  By the time the pilots realized that their position was wrong it was too late and the right wing was sheared off, followed soon by the left wing as they hit another peak.  The force of the collision was so great that it tore off the tail section of the plane.  With only the main fuselage left, the remains of the plane skidded down the mountain slope until they stopped in a snow bank.

Out of the forty-five passengers only thirty-three people survived the crash.  Another five died by the next morning. Those that survived included many people who would later die from their injuries.  Their pilot was among the dead but the co-pilot was alive long enough to tell them they were near the city of Curico, which was an inaccurate statement that later led to a desperate decision that had life or death consequences.  With the temperature dropping to thirty below zero at night, conditions were brutal and an additional five people died the first night.  The next day, a search plane flew over them but missed the crash site since the plane was painted white and blended into the surroundings.

The passengers of 571 faced their new reality of having to survive with a limited amount of rations or equipment.  Water was obtainable from gathering snow onto sheets of scrap metal to let it melt in the sun and then collecting it in empty wine bottles.  From the wreckage they were able to find a screwdriver, an axe, and a functioning transistor radio, but they had no medicine or first aid supplies to help the wounded and the doctor that was on the plane died in the crash.  To make matters worse, they only had a can of sardines, a couple of candy bars, and some wine to split between the remaining  survivors which of course didn’t last long. With nothing to eat, no animals around to capture, and no other options, they began to eat their dead friends and family that hadn’t survived.

The dead had been dragged to outside to the rear of the plane and buried in the snow which helped preserve the bodies, including the very much alive Nando Parrada who was thought to be dead but actually in a coma that lasted three days. When he woke up, he discovered that his mother had been killed in the crash and his sister was about to die as well.  After the loss of his mother and sister, Nando was determined to escape and return to his father.  When the survivors heard that the search for them was cancelled on their transistor radio, many despaired but it was at that point that they knew that their survival was dependent on them.

On their 28th day there, an avalanche hit them without warning and filled up the interior of the plane where they were sleeping.  Eight of the twenty-seven remaining survivors died from asphyxiation within the snow.  The nineteen people left had to tunnel their way above the snow to get oxygen and were trapped there for three days until Nando was able to poke a hole through the roof of the plane with a metal rod. After three more people died, it was decided to risk some expeditions to see if any sign of an escape were available.   During one of the scouting missions, some of the survivors found the missing tail section of the plane which provided them with some additional food and other goods from the suitcases within it.

After a fruitless effort to hook up the plane’s radio to batteries found in the tail section, the group decided that a small group of explorers would have to journey through the mountains to seek rescue.  Since the co-pilot had erroneously told them the wrong position, they thought they would only have to walk a couple of miles to find help.  But instead of being in Chile like they thought, they were still in Argentina and many miles further away than they thought.  Nando and Robert, with a makeshift sleeping bag and three days of human flesh to sustain them, set out west to climb a 14,447 foot mountain in a desperate attempt to find rescue for all of them.   It wasn’t until the reached the summit did they truly understand how hopeless their situation was when all they saw around them was more mountains and no sign of civilization anywhere.

Documentaries like these always fascinate the public since it makes  wonder what they would do if they were put into the same situation.  Would you eat the raw flesh from one of your friends to survive?  Could you?  This combination of despair, horror, love, friendship, sacrifice, and ultimately hope as well just captures our attention.  A story this personal couldn’t be told without the participation of the people who lived it and fortunately for us, many of them were willing to tell their story again.  The movie balances interviews with the people involved along with an excellent re-enactment of the event.  Computer graphics are also used to show the accident and what exactly happened that started this ordeal.  As bad and heart-breaking as this story is, it’s also uplifting too due to the fact that these men faced an impossible scenario and found the strength within themselves to rise about it.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

This DVD has a 1.78:1 anamorphic wide-screen transfer and it looks pretty good.  The interviews and any recent footage are all sharp with nice color, suitable black levels, and good contrast.  Flesh tones are good overall but on occasion can be a little warm for some of the interviews.  The archive footage is of course rougher than the recent footage but that’s to be expected.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars)

While the only option available is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix, it still gets the job done and even does better than expected during some sequences such as the plane crash.  Dialogue is clear and clean and is never drowned out by the music or other effects.  While I would have preferred at least a 5.1 mix, this one rises to the occasion and does an acceptable job.

Special Features (3 out of 5 stars)

I thought these would amount to fluff pieces but they were actually pretty interesting for anyone who wants to learn more about the survivors and what happened after they were rescued.
  • Return to the Valley of Tears – We see an expedition return to the crash site to see what remains of it still exist and also to retrace the steps Nando and Robert took in their escape from the Andes.
  • The Parrada Family Business – A look at the life Nando Parrada has led after being rescued.  From becoming a race car driver to running the family hardware business, Nando has tried living his life to the fullest.
  • Traces of Tragedy: Artifacts from the Andes Plane Crash – A look at that the expedition found when they returned to the crash site.  There’s some pieces of the plane, burned money, intact clothes, and even a piece of sharpened glass that was used to cuth the flesh from the dead.
  • Extended Interviews – Some more interviews from everyone that was cut out to reduce the running time of the movie.  Nothing earth-shattering here but some interesting information that helps tell the overall story.

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

I thought this was a fantastic documentary that captures the ordeal and suffering that these men went through but also shows the inspirational aspects of how the human spirit can overcome terrible odds.  Usually I hate re-enactments, but these were done very well and added a lot to the movie.  In addition, having the actual people interviewed to tell their story added a huge impact as well.  I highly recommend this!

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