June 16, 2006

A&E docudrama chronicles blind trek up Mt. Everest

By Ray Richmond

LOS ANGELES - It's pretty much inconceivable that a blind man could climb the 29,000-foot-plus Mount Everest. Scaling the world's highest peak is challenging enough for someone with all of their senses intact.

So clearly, Erik Weihenmayer deserves his own TV-movie docudrama honoring his truly mind-boggling achievement. As a biopic, A&E's "Touch the Top of the World" -- based on Weihenmayer's book of the same name -- is nothing if not flattering and laudatory, and appropriately so.

It does his incredible story proud. The guy is portrayed as a hero not merely for the blind community but indeed the human race itself. I mean, what he did in May 2001 is the equivalent of hitting a home run off Roger Clemens while swinging a pool cue. Into a headwind.

But while the telefilm is well produced and commendably documents the daunting perils of traversing Everest without sight, I couldn't help but be nagged by the feeling that this man also exercised a significant degree of selfishness.

By having to concentrate much of their efforts on aiding Weihenmayer's climb, the members of his climbing team put their own lives in even greater danger than they otherwise would have done.

Yes, these men had recruited Weihenmayer, and the entire expedition was funded by a blind organization's grant, but the sacrifice of his colleagues was at least as great (and perhaps greater) than his own. At worst, the glory should be shared.

That caveat out of the way, "Top of the World" delivers the goods in terms of storytelling and poignance, keeping the harrowing and treacherous aspects of the journey at the family-friendly level.

Peter Facinelli, who bears a resemblance to a young Tom Cruise, stars as Weihenmayer, struck by a genetic disorder that rendered him completely blind by age 13 but with a mother (well played by Kate Greenhouse) whose undying, coddle-free support helped produce a high-achieving son.

He didn't allow his disability to keep him from being on the wrestling team in high school or from developing an obsession for climbing rocks.

The Everest ascent frames the film in flashback and flash-forward, with Weihenmayer's teammates urging him on (often via tough love) through treacherous ice falls, wild weather fluctuations and the oxygen depletion issues that can render this mountain so brutal and deadly.

When he's not moving into thin air, Weihenmayer is shown bonding with his dad (Bruce Campbell), meeting a beautiful woman (Sarah Manninen) and marrying her and fighting through his own self-doubt that we're led to believe presents the only real barriers to what this blind wonder can do.

Peter Silverman's teleplay adaptation paints a believable enough picture of off-the-charts courage, even if it has occasional problems trying to separate the man from the myth.

The Erik Weihenmayer depicted here is the very essence of positive thinking, wholesomeness and grace, somewhat like a blind, mountain-climbing Mother Teresa.

But again, it's hard to overstate the scope of the achievement, and director Peter Winther, in tandem with director of photography Attila Szalay, adroitly capture the sense of perpetual unease during the Everest undertaking.

That said, it had to be even more hazardous and difficult for Weihenmayer to make it to the peak than is suggested in "Top of the World."

Just close your eyes and try crossing the street. Now imagine doing it without air, traveling vertically, on ice -- for six miles.


Erik Weihenmayer: Peter Facinelli

Erik (age 12-16): Jack Knight

Ellie: Sarah Manninen

Ed Weihenmayer: Bruce Campbell

Ellen Weihenmayer: Kate Greenhouse

Sam: Robert Moloney

Jeff Evans: Saxon DeCocq

Chris Morris: Aaron Poole

PV: Shaun Johnston

Ana Pasang: Mingma Sherpa

Mike O'Donnell: Marty Antonini

Mark: Kurtis Sanheim


Executive producers: Mark Sennet, Eda Lishman, Michael Jaffe, Howard Braunstein, Delia Fine

Supervising producer: David Craig

Producer: Eda Lishman

Co-producers: Victor Boutrous, Shannon Bae, Nives Lever, Fiorella Cole

Consulting producer: Roger Lefkon

Director: Peter Winther

Teleplay: Peter Silverman

Based on the book by: Erik Weihenmayer

Director of photography: Attila Szalay

Production designer: Rick Roberts

Costume designer: Jennifer Haffenden

Art director: Janet Lakeman

Editor: Bridget Durnford

Visual effects: Ken Bits

Sound mixer: Ron Osiowy

Casting: Susan Edelman, Jackie Lind

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter