Pros: Fascinating story; nice dramatizations, interviews, archival materials

Cons: Nothing major

In 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (a chartered Fairchild FH-227 carrying 45 passengers, most of whom were members of a rugby team from Uruguay) crashed deep in the Andes mountains between Argentina and Chile. Twelve persons were killed instantly in the crash, in which the pilot of the aircraft, mistakenly believing he had crossed into Chilean airspace, suddenly turned north and headed straight into the mountains. The remaining 33 people found themselves in a desperate bid for survival, ill-equipped for the harsh climate they faced at an altitude of around 12,000 feet and with no mountain training or cold weather gear whatsoever. The harrowing story of the survival of sixteen of the original crash victims was the basis for several books and feature films, with the 2010 History Channel documentary I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash telling the story mainly from the perspective of crash victim Nando Parrado, who led a nearly incomprehensible two-man, 40 mile trek through the heart of the Andes back to civilization. This journey ultimately led to the downright miraculous rescue of the remaining survivors a remarkable some 72 days after the plane went down.

As seems to be the case with many similar programs these days, I Am Alive plays as a docudrama, interspersing interviews with survivors, their family members, and mountaineering experts with a dramatic recreation of the major events of the story. The interview subjects utilized here have good information to contribute to the discussion, providing bits of information about the aircraft itself (this particular model had a horrific safety record), its pilot, the terrain in which the plane went down, and the seemingly insurmountable odds facing the stranded men. Being a bit of a mountaineering buff, it was really cool to hear from famed climber Ed Viesturs, who offers his unique, knowledgeable perspective. When Viesturs points out that the prospects of literally walking out of the middle of the Andes are almost impossible – especially given the lack of training or gear – it’s hard to argue.

The recreations done for this program are universally well done, and some of the the most breathtaking footage actually seems to have been filmed in a large mountain range. There’s really some nice cinematography during these scenes, which emphasize just how remote the crash site was. Poignant music adds to the effectiveness of the dramatization, and though the acting is low-key and dialogue-free, I thought the actors did a pretty nice job. Written and directed by Brad Osborne, I Am Alive also makes a nice use of archival film and photographs. This story was pretty well-documented in the media around the time it happened and since, and I came into this show being aware of the major points of discussion hit upon in the ongoing narrative. Still, it was pretty fascinating to see (occasionally grisly) photos taken by the survivors of the crash which detailed their day-to-day existence, and to see the actual film footage taken when rescue helicopters descended on the nearly invisible plane wreckage high in the mountains. Perhaps my favorite part of the program were the scenes that showed the exact locations where some of the events in the story took place: we see the desolate, imposing valley where the plane actually went down, and take a look at the terrain along the path that Parrado took in an attempt to get help. One really gets a sense in these shots of the utter hopelessness that these men had to have been experiencing.

Undoubtedly the biggest talking point related to this story was the fact that those who remained alive following the initial crash resorted to eating the bodies of their dead comrades in order to survive. Stories like this aren’t all that uncommon looking back in history (for instance, the infamous Donner Party cannibalized their dead in order to survive a harsh winter on their journey through the American west), yet there always seems to be public condemnation of these acts, as if the people having to practice anthropophagy honestly had any choice in the matter. Trapped in an extreme situation, I think most people would do what it takes in order to survive and, when faced with absolute starvation, meat is meat. Certainly, I Am Alive touches on this issue: it would be impossible to tell this story without some discussion of it, but I felt as though the matter was handled tastefully by the producers.

For the most part, this program focuses its attention where it should be: on the amazing, bigger picture story of survival and namely on the incredible, grueling journey through the Andes that was undertaken by crash survivors Parrado and Roberto Canessa. These two, with minimal food and no honest-to-goodness mountain gear or know-how, somehow crossed 40 miles of hazardous and brutal mountain terrain during the course of a ten day trek. Without doubt, their individual story is one of the most unbelievable stories of unflappable will and determination ever seen in human history, and I Am Alive accentuates just how astounding this feat actually is. Though I was well aware of how this story played out, the sense of jubilation that exists in the recreated footage when Parrado and Canessa stumble upon a rancher is palpable. It’s a genuinely moving moment, especially when the people who lived the story tell it from their point-of-view.

Certainly, the story surrounding the crash of Flight 571 is fascinating, and this program provides a well-rounded examination of the event. I suppose one could make an argument that the story is a bit too one-sided, focusing almost exclusively on the obvious hero of the story Parrado, but it’s hardly much of a legitimate flaw. I’d say this show keeps the viewer’s attention throughout, seemingly like more than just a collection of talking heads. Though quite tragic and somber at times particularly when Parrado talks about his mother and sister who were killed in the crash, in the end this documentary is more a celebration of the human spirit and will to survive. While the show is pretty outstanding, it definitely looks and plays like a made-for-TV production and considering that, I’m not sure that it would be worth purchasing. I Am Alive is certainly worth watching though: give it a look if it you can catch it on TV.

Full-frame DVD from A&E Home Video includes several featurettes that includes a nice extras package. Additional interview footage is featured as well as segments detailing wreckage recovered from the crash site, what Nando Parrado is doing these days, and a return to the crash site nearly 40 years later.

4/10 : A few graphic images, but this is more disturbing for its subject matter and themes more than anything actually shown onscreen.

0/10 : No profanity; possible disturbing content

0/10 : Nothing going

0/10 : A straight-forward documentary presentation

“I said ‘Nando, there isn’t anything left in the storage compartments,’ and Nando looked me in the eye and said ‘Carlitos, I want to eat the pilot…’”


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