The Miami Herald

Nostalgic tone, fine acting make for warm hearted tale
By Curtis Morgan
Herald Staff Writer

Thatís not just a rickety old radio tower rising on a hill over suburban Baltimore, circa 1959, in The Climb.

      Itís a measuring stick, a metaphor fashioned of rusting angle iron.

      Danny (Gregory Smith), a good-hearted but hard-headed 12-year-old is obsessed with climbing it to prove his mettle to himself and himself and neighborhood bullies.

      Helping him do it distracts Langer (John Hurt), a gruff, tough old working man dying painfully next door, from suicidal urges with one last challenging job. And the risky stunt also tests the manhood of Dannyís widower father (David Strathairn), a reputed coward whose suspect heart murmur kept him safe at home when everyone else went off to The Big War.

      Because this is so obviously a warm, sweet slice olí Americana pie, it really doesnít spoil things to say everyone eventually measures up. The Climb is an earnest coming of age tale and probably the Miami Film Festivalís most mainstream offering. Itís got more gentle lessons on life and death than a Disney family movie.

      Itís also a significant departure for director, Bob Swaim, an expatriate who lives in Paris and is scheduled to attend. His previous works have tended toward thrillers packed with devious danger-sorts -- Masquerade with the miscast Rob Lowe, Half Moon Street and La Balance, widely praised in France.

      Ironically, here the good and decent characters get too much credit. Writer Vincent McKewin, co-author of the superb, Fly Away Home, strives for the same uplifting tone, but this story wears its heart a little too heavily on its sleeve. The elaborate emotional layers linking Danny, his dad and the old man are too neatly constructed. Most everyone is just a little too wise or noble, the morals too obvious.

      Still, itís easy to fall into the nostalgic rhythm and mood of a fine cast. Strathairn excels in a role he of he often fills, the quiet, sensitive male. Smith is a pure believable boy, climbing trees or pondering death.

      But itís Hurt, as a crusty adventurer come home to hack up his lungs and die, who has the showiest role. Heís generally terrific, grizzled and bitter, but would have been better with one or two fewer speeches. Thereís only so much wisdom to go around. Interestingly, if there was one Hurt would also win the festivalís versatility award. In Love and Death on Long Island he plays a completely opposite role, a stuffy academician obsessed with a teen idol.

      This movie is preceded by Lucas, a knowing little French short on a guerrilla war of the sexes whose wicked charms build to one inevitable and very funny punchline.

3 Stars
Cast: John Hurt, Gregory Smith, David Strathairn, Stephen McHattie, Seth Smith, Sarah Buxton, Marla Sokoloff
Director: Bob Swaim
Producer: Mark McClafferty, Pamela Edwards McClafferty, Tom Parkinson
Cinematographer: Allen Guildford.