Appellate Judge James A. Stewart climbed a flight of steps the other day.
"Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, 29,035 feet. The Tibetans call it Chomolungma, the Mother Goddess. For a sighted person, climbing Mount Everest is one of the greatest physical challenges on the face of the Earth. For the blind, it's been deemed virtually impossible."
Erik Weihenmayer did the virtually impossible. So far, according to the text at the end of Touch the Top of the World, Weihenmayer is still the only blind person ever to have climbed Mount Everest. He wrote a book about his experience, which became a TV movie.
Facts of the Case
As a boy, Erik was diagnosed with retinoschisis. "His retinas are already detached from the center of his pupils…The pressure will eventually cause both retinas to split," the doctor tells his parents.
His father (Bruce Campbell, Burn Notice) doesn't want Erik to give up on athletic activity. He introduces his son to a blind wrestler who encourages the youth to take up the sport, and eventually joins his son in rock climbing.
When Erik (Peter Facinelli, Damages) takes a teaching job, he meets kindred spirits in Sam Bridges (Robert Moloney, Kaya), a fellow rock climber, and Ellie (Sarah Manninen, The Line), the woman he will eventually marry. With their encouragement, he continues climbing and eventually becomes a speaker and adventurer. When he meets P.V. (Shaun Johnston, Broken Trail), who's planning an Everest climb, Erik has the opportunity to pursue a seemingly impossible dream.
Even if you haven't heard of Erik Weihenmayer before, there's something familiar about Touch the Top of the World's story of exceeding expectations and toppling barriers. What sets it apart from other feel-good TV movies?
The answer lies in the way the movie lets viewers experience Erik's adventures from his point of view. Early on, when young Erik's vision is gradually blurring, we see a daring bicycle stunt through his failing eyes. When he's climbing Everest, he sees very little, only wavy lines and outlines of figures; we see that, too. Crossing a gap on a rickety ladder would be challenging no matter what, but it takes on new importance with a glimpse at how Erik experiences it.
Peter Facinelli's performance consistently draws viewers into Erik's world as well. The most notable scene finds Erik going to the junkyard to "see" the wrecked car his mother died in. As he's tearing up, he finds a piece of her jewelry on the dashboard and the memories that go with it. In every scene, he shows us the ways Erik does everyday things, handling a folding cane or listening to his class to know who to call on, handling the details naturally. Facinelli also brings a determined confidence to the role, which takes away the basic question of "Will he make it?" and lets viewers notice the details of Erik's life. One of the younger Eriks, Jack Knight, gets a strong scene in which Erik finally loses his sight and freaks out, even though he has always been prepared for this at some level.
If you're wondering how Bruce Campbell does as the supportive father, rest assured Campbell plays it straight, without the goofiness you know from his other roles. True, Campbell sticks out a little bit just for being Brisco County Jr., but Facinelli's dominant performance lets the movie get away with casting a larger-than-life actor.
The movie has some great climbing footage with no noticeable flaws, even though it was shot in Alberta, not at Everest.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The heartwarming aspects of Touch the Top of the World outweigh the adventure aspects. There's some climbing footage, but the focus here is on the person, not the climb. If an adrenaline rush of adventure is what you're after, this may not be the movie for you.
You also might be disappointed at the lack of extras, such as background on Everest or Erik Weihenmayer.
Touch the Top of the World is a better-than-average TV movie, thanks to the sensitive direction of Peter Winther (The Librarian: Quest for the Spear) and an understated but strong performance from Peter Facinelli.
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