San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, February 26, 1999

Four Star Theater Gives Overlooked ‘The Climb’ a Boost
John Hurt great in poignant tale

By Peter Stack
CHRONICLE STAFF CRITIC

Leathery-looking John Hurt, playing a cantankerous character with edgy fire, runs away with the poignant “The Climb,” an unusual booking at the Four Star Theater, where the 1997 film is only now getting a commercial U.S. premiere.

     Originally titled “Straight Through the Heart,” this touching film had a rocky history - surprisingly so, considering how accomplished it is in telling the heartfelt story of a preteen boy who is befriended by a bitter, dying man.

     The film, directed by Bob Swaim (“La Balance,” “Masquerade”), played a few festivals (Miami, Cannes, Berlin) and was initially slated for wide release last spring, but the distribution financing fell short.

     “The Climb” is tough to categorize. With a PG-13 rating, this quirky, intimate melodrama might work as family fare or an interesting piece for preteens and up – it’s been compared to “Stand by Me.” But if it wasn’t for Hurt’s amazing performance, “The Climb” might otherwise be forgotten.

     In 1959 Baltimore, 12-year-old Danny Himes (Gregory Smith, “Small Soldiers”) is obsessed with a risky quest to scale a 203-foot radio tower looming as a skeletal curiosity on a small hilltop near his home.

     Part of the kid’s interest is to salvage the reputation of his widower father Earl (David Straithairn), called a coward by some for not serving in World War II or Korea. Danny’s big sister, Leslie, is played by Marla Sokoloff (the young, off-the-wall secretary on TV’s “The Practice”).

     Hurt (“Love and Death on Long Island,” “The Elephant Man”) is Langer, a civil engineer with a colorful past. He’s returned from South America and other haunts to his Baltimore roots, living out his final days in his son’s house. Dying of lung cancer, Langer’s a royal pain, friendless and forsaken by family.

     Hurt infuses the part with wicked humor, a mix of wisdom and despair. He creates a beautiful portrait of a man who can’t wait to be done with life. At the same time he’s feeling unexpected renewal via his friendship with Danny, who confides about his perilous plans. After first trying to coax the kid to bring him a gun to commit suicide with, Langer’s piqued by the engineering challenge of figuring out how Danny can climb the tower.

     “The Climb,” however, has other ambitions. And other riches that have to fight the film’s tendency to get a bit syrupy and overly nostalgic. Through fine characterizations, writer Vince McKewin’s (“Fly Away Home”) screenplay unlocks a warm portrait of Danny’s neighborhood and his father’s unexpected turn as a hero (the film was shot in New Zealand, but makes a heroic attempt to look like suburban Baltimore).

          The Los Angeles-based producers of “The Climb,” Mark and Pamela McClafferty, writer McKewin and cast member Sokoloff are scheduled for a question and answer at the 7:50 p.m. screening of the film tomorrow at the Four Star.