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Sunday Night Specials

  • Mark Moring Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 16 Nov
Sunday Night Specials
Most of our coverage at Christianity Today Movies is about films currently showing in theaters. But there are two gems coming on TV this Sunday night (Nov. 21) that are well worth watching. As we head into Thanksgiving week, both films will give you something to be thankful for.

The Wool Cap
TNT, 8 p.m. (ET)

Some of the best acting performances of all time have featured men playing characters with some sort of disability or unique mental challenge—Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Geoffrey Rush in Shine, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, and even Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump.

It's time to add William H. Macy to the list. First came his emotive performance as a salesman with cerebral palsy in 2002's marvelous Door to Door, a TNT original production that won Macy an Emmy.

And now comes The Wool Cap, another TNT original—part of their Johnson & Johnson Spotlight series of family-friendly, uplifting fare—which airs Sunday, Nov. 21, at 8 p.m. (ET). Macy might just nab another Emmy for this performance, in which he plays a mute building superintendent who lives sparsely in the basement of the poverty-riddled apartment building he manages.

The Wool Cap is an edgy, poignant drama telling the improbable but touching story of Gigot (Macy), a white man with a tortured past, and his budding friendship with Lou (newcomer Kiki Palmer), a bright young black girl who is also trying to overcome a difficult past—including a drug-addicted mother who has recently abandoned her daughter to find her way on her own.

Sound depressing? Ultimately, it's not; indeed, it's quite uplifting. Yes, some of the film is sobering—it cuts no corners in illustrating the desperate plight of poverty, hunger, drug abuse, alcoholism, crime, and broken families. More than once, we see the face, and look into the very eyes, of brokenness.

But brokenness is often the first step on the road to recovery and redemption, and that's exactly the case in this beautiful story. When Gigot first reluctantly takes the newly homeless Lou into his basement, the two are constantly at odds with one another. But Lou's winsome personality eventually begins to steal Gigot's heart, forcing him to take a long look at himself—including the ever-present bottle of whiskey and a past that continues to come back to haunt him.

As we watch Gigot's and Lou's friendship begins to blossom, we see both characters begin to exorcise their personal demons. And I don't use such religious imagery lightly; there's a church scene near the end of the film, where Gigot, at the end of his rope, spots a plaque on the sanctuary wall that reads, "For Thou, Lord, art good and ready to forgive, plenteous in mercy unto all that call upon Thee." For Gigot, it's a defining moment, and his reaction is a priceless moment more than worth the price of admission. From that moment onward, things begin to take a turn for both Gigot and Lou—and I'll spare you the details so you can enjoy watching the story unfold for yourself. (And yes, we do learn the significance of the wool cap to which Gigot is so attached.)

"The Wool Cap is a great moral story and one that I believe in," says Macy. "It's about acknowledging that we all need forgiveness at one point or another. It's about two lost people finding themselves in the most unlikely way. It's also about the bond of family."

Macy is absolutely brilliant in the lead role. Never does a single sound come out of his mouth—quite the opposite of another character he played recently, the fast-talking loudmouthed radio announcer in Seabiscuit. But just like in Door to Door, Macy nails the role of a unique character with an unusual disability. His evocative expressiveness throughout The Wool Cap is indeed a picture worth a thousand words.

But Macy does not steal the show. Palmer is exhilarating as Lou—brilliant and effervescent, yet stubborn and troubled . . . with a penchant for shoplifting. But Gigot's heart—and ours—is irresistibly drawn to this remarkable young character. Palmer's performance has not gone unnoticed; The Disney Channel has picked her up for her own TV show, Keke Rules.

Add a supporting case that includes Don Rickles (yes, that Don Rickles, in a serious role), Ned Beatty, and Catherine O'Hara, and this is a winner all the way.

The Wool Cap is a remake of a 1962 film, Gigot, which was written by and starring Jackie Gleason. The script for this version was co-written by Macy and director Steve Schachter. The film is rated TV-PG-L; there is a little bit of rough language, and there are a couple of troubling scenes where we see Lou's mother strung out on drugs. It's fine for mature tweens and up, but not younger children.

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Touching the Void

Like The Wool Cap, Touching the Void is another powerful glimpse into the human spirit—this time, simply the indomitable will to live. This true story, based on mountain climber Joe Simpson's best-seller of the same title and filmed by Academy Award-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), was a surprising box-office hit in 2003, going on to become the highest-grossing British documentary of all time. (It's actually more of a "docu-drama," combining elements of real interviews with the characters, with actors playing re-enactments of the roles.)

The storyline is simple enough: Best buddies and fellow adventurers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to climb the 21,000-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, the only mountain in the Peruvian range that hadn't yet been scaled. The young Brits, skilled climbers both, were confident they would succeed. And they did, reaching the top on three and a half days. But on the way down, disaster struck.

While descending the mountain, Simpson fell and broke his right leg; his lower leg pushed through the knee joint, crippling him. (It's painful enough just to write about it; it's even more painful to watch the re-enactment.) Yates was determined to try to find a way to get them both down the mountain, so he took to lowering his friend, 300 feet a time, using all their rope. Then disaster struck again, when Yates accidentally—and unknowingly, thanks to the howling wind and snow—lowered Simpson over the edge of a crevasse, leaving him dangling in midair with a long drop beneath him.

Yates hung on to the rope for an hour, his strength ebbing away—and not knowing what was wrong with Simpson. Eventually, he was faced with an unthinkable dilemma: hang on till they were both pulled off the mountain, or let go, assuring his friend's death but possibly saving his own life. Logic would suggest it's better for one man to die rather than both, but for a climber, it is taboo—even anathema—to cut the rope that binds him to his partner, under any circumstances.

What would Yates do? You'll have to watch to find out. And while you're at it, ask yourself, "What would I do?" That very question will spark great family discussion after watching the movie.

What's especially stirring about this film is that even though you know both men made it out alive—they're being interviewed about the experience many years afterward—it's still one of the more intense dramas I've seen in a long time. Much of that is because director Macdonald did such a convincing job of re-creating the experience: This is no cheesy, fuzzy, jerky-camera footage that you often see in documentaries. This feels real, taking you right onto the mountain face, into the howling winds, down in the crevasse.

Macdonald cut no corners in making the film. He took his crew—including Yates and Simpson, who served as collaborators on the film—to Peru and to the Alps, often filming in sub-zero temperatures: "The air was thin, dehydration was a constant issue, and hypothermia remained a threat day and night," said producer John Smithson. "You would be lowered into a crevasse, break through the snow and realize that there was actually a huge cathedral-like space underneath that you could have fallen into." In other words, the conditions for the filmmakers were not too unlike those that Yates and Simpson went through—and the end result is edge-of-your-seat viewing. You can practically feel the frostbite, the agonizing pain, and the mental anguish that these young men experienced.

While there are many gripping moments throughout the film, one is especially captivating. Simpson is trapped in the bottom of a crevasse, certain he's going to die. What would you be thinking or doing in such a situation? The real-life Simpson, now 41, shares his thoughts while narrating that particular scene: "I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I had long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered if things really hit the fan, whether I would, under pressure, turn around and say a few Hail Marys and say, 'Get me out of here.' [But] it never once occurred to me. If I had even thought that was a way out or some sort of solace, or knew it was time to meet my Maker and go to paradise, I would've just stopped still . . . and I would have died."

How sad and ironic that a lack of faith gave this man the will to live, and that he believed that faith, instead, would have given him a reason to give up hope. It makes for still more interesting discussion fodder: Indeed, as Christians, we have no need to fear death and can look forward to paradise and meeting our Maker; the apostle Paul said as much, noting that to "live is Christ, but to die is gain." One can see how a non-believer might think, "To live is everything, and to die is the end of it all." But would a strong faith really give a believer an excuse to just give up and die? What do you think?

But that scene by no means is a knock against the quality of this film. It clearly portrays the limits the human body can endure and survive, whatever it takes.

The Wood Cap photos © Copyright TNT Touching the Void photos © Copyright IFC Films Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.