A Fairchild F-227 Twin-Engined turboprop, whose passengers include a Uruguayan rugby team flying over the Andes, slams a wing into a mountainside. When both wings break from the fuselage, passengers are blown into the sky or left bleeding and unconscious as their shell of an aircraft skids to rest on a snowy volcanic peak. This heart-stopping sequence -- vividly directed by Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia) -- begins a remarkable true-life adventure that taps dark emotions beneath the weary conventions of the crash-rescue plot.
Other films, including Survive! in 1976, have exploited the 1972 tragedy by focusing on one fact: The living hacked off and ate the flesh of the frozen dead to stay alive over ten grueling weeks. Alive, based on Piers Paul Read's fine book, provides a fuller picture. It is a particular strength of the script, by John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), that the motivations for the cannibalism are seen in compassionate terms. Ethan Hawke as rugby star Nando Parrado (a technical adviser on the film) and Josh Hamilton as his teammate Roberto Canessa may seem very American to be playing Uruguayans, but they show the gift these athletes had of instilling hope in others while trembling inside. Alive draws considerable power from staying more human than heroic.