Film Review: Robert Zemeckis’ ‘The Walk’

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Walk’ review: High-wire act falls short of documentary.

In “The Walk,” Robert Zemeckis dares audiences to look down, zooming fast as gravity past 110 stories from the top of the World Trade Center to the expectant faces on the crowd below. Ahead of the film’s world premiere, the star and the director explain how a combination of digital painting, “an elaborate workshop” and “a green abyss” aims to give audiences “the feeling of vertigo.” “Right behind us, there’s a fifty-foot drop, which is hilarious for this type of movie where we’re on top of towers the whole time – and this is the most petrified I’ve ever been in my entire life,” joked Ben Schwartz during The Walk press conference, sitting next to a gap just in front the AMC Lincoln Square’s 3D IMAX screen.“Now I’ve seen everything,” an anonymous New Yorker remarks, marveling at the spectacle unfolding more than a hundred stories above street level.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper, Inception) stars as Petit, clad in a bad wig and colored contacts that signal a rough start from the very opening of the film.Celluloid? “It’s dirty and inefficient.” George Lucas’s Star Wars tinkering? “An abomination.” Remake Back To The Future? “Over my dead body.” A talk with the risk-taking director of The Walk Imagine you’re standing on the edge of a very tall building. A quarter of a mile above, daredevil high-wire artist Philippe Petit (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) soft-shoes between New York City’s two tallest buildings in a breathtaking stunt the lunatic Frenchman believes could be “the most audacious work of art that has ever been done.” For a man whose name literally means “little,” Petit sure talks a big game. Zemeckis borrows the same device he used in Forrest Gump, having Petit narrate the film as it recounts his early beginnings as a wire walker, his family’s rejection of his creative ambitions, and his eventual tutelage at the hands of a circus ringleader known as Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley).

Luckily, Zemeckis shares his gift for hyperbole, and together, they recreate the wild dream as only cinema can, giving audiences a 3D, all-angle view of an experience that, until now, only one man on earth could claim to have lived. Unaware of Petit’s performance beforehand, he began developing the film after reading the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, which led him to secure the rights to the French high-wire artist’s story. Petit is a dreamer in the most extreme sense, a man who sees the wire as the only canvas upon which he’s able to truly express himself, and like all good movie dreamers he lets neither familial doubts nor the law get in the way of what he sees as the ultimate “coup”: walking a wire between the Twin Towers. Robert Zemeckis’s glimmering dream of a film, which opens the 2015 New York Film Festival, takes two buildings that have become emblematic of everything that’s frightening and uncertain about 21st century life in the West and redeems them. What’s making you feel nauseous isn’t the thought of the fall, but the empty space itself, which contains none of the short-to-mid-range visual cues that your brain normally uses to gauge how well you’re balanced.

He said he was been actively looking for material that lends itself to 3D specifically as a storytelling tool. “I thought it had all the elements to make a compelling movie,” he said, later praising the overlapping Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire “that lets you in to see what all the real characters were thinking. The act of trespassing was not legal and involved all sorts of disguises, accomplices, dodges and “spy work,” as Petit referred to it later in his book “To Reach the Clouds,” upon which the new film “The Walk” was based. It turns Petit’s stunt, which was one hundred percent illegal, and completed without a harness, into a kind of pre-emptive retort to the attacks of September 11th, 2001 – a reminder that beauty, fun and the irresistible human impulse to create are the stuff that dissolves terror on contact. All the surround-sound bells and whistles and digitally enhanced fireworks in the world can’t quite shake us out of the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. And as it tries to get the measure of the situation, adjusting your posture to see what’s gone wrong, you start swaying forwards into that empty space – as if your subconscious wants you to keep leaning out, and out, until your lack of balance is no longer an optical illusion.

Gordon-Levitt was always going to be a strange choice to play Philippe Petit, a hyper-kinetic and highly gesticulative showman with impish blue eyes, wild orange hair and a thick French accent — none of them qualities that audiences associate with the brooding “Looper” star. We worked really hard to put those audience up on those towers and on the wire.” With no former high-wire experience, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt trained directly with Petit, who optimistically insisted that the actor would be able to walk on the wire alone after “an elaborate workshop” for eight days. “He’s such a positive thinker, he believed that I would and because [of that], I started to believe I would,” he said. “When you believe that you can do something, that’s when you can do something – and he was right. It’s all prelude, of course, to the titular walk itself, and it’s obvious that’s the part of the story that got Zemeckis interested in the first place.

The medical term for this sensation is ‘visual height intolerance’, though it’s is often wrongly called vertigo, which is a completely different balance-related complaint. Resemblance matters, since the Trade Center coup has made Petit an international celebrity of sorts, his story known by children (a significant percentage of the PG-rated film’s intended audience) and retold in James Marsh’s terrific 2008 documentary “Man on Wire.” That’s a problem for the marketing department, who must battle whatever resistance audiences have to watching the kid from “Third Rock from the Sun” gad about in a weird wig and contacts, though it’s quickly forgotten in the context of the film certainly, it’s no worse a distraction than Johnny Depp’s “Black Mass” performance, though Gordon-Levitt goes to the additional trouble of delivering a significant portion of his dialogue in French). Where does that leave “The Walk,” director Robert Zemeckis’ fancy, fictionalized docudrama version of the grandest act of poetic terrorism ever committed on American soil? The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called it “the dizziness of freedom”: the very specific pang of anxiety humans feel when they realise just how easy it would be to do something unspeakably terrible, like throwing themselves off the roof of a skyscraper. Of course, no film can touch on these landmarks without conjuring memories of their tragic collapse, though “The Walk” reminds us that while New Yorkers still bond over the question, “Where were you on 9/11?” a quarter century earlier, before the South Tower was even finished, witnesses of Petit’s walk were forever transformed by what they saw. (That very notion inspired Colum McCann to write his brilliant tapestry novel “Let the Great World Spin,” which revolves around Petit’s high-wire act and “the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground”).

What “The Walk” has going for it, though, is an awe-inspiring final chapter that will trigger vertigo in countless viewers as Joseph Gordon-Levitt prances out onto a thin wire stretching to infinity. Few filmmakers have accomplished more seemingly impossible feats onscreen than Zemeckis, and here, the director brings his magician’s ability to blend character and technology in such a way that virtuoso style seems to spring organically from the material itself. I can only say “The Walk” struck me as an honorable good try of an also-ran, though with some lovely things to offer, especially when the preamble and preparations and backstage dramas wind down and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrays Petit, takes that first step. The photography, sound, certainly the visual effects — everything comes together for a unique experience that will make the film stand out from other contenders this season.

The script by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne positions Gordon-Levitt (sporting a heavily worn French accent) as narrator and host of his own story, speaking to us from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. In predominantly black-and-white flashbacks, Paris street performer Petit plies his slack-rope skills wherever he can elude the cops long enough to gather a crowd. And with the screen filling my peripheral vision and the depth of the image pulling me in, I realized I was having the kind of exhilarating experience that can only be had at the movies. (I only wonder what the film would have been like if it had shot natively in IMAX, taking advantage of its taller, more immersive aspect ratio.) With virtual reality and other immersive experiences factoring so heavily in modern conversations about media, it’s easy to look to those new forms as the best ways to transport audiences into new worlds, but a movie like actually serves as a strong counter-argument. Like any great magician or illusionist would do, you don’t want to let them see the effects, but the majority was digital [painting].” Aside from wire-walking, Gordon-Levitt also learned to speak French fluently, perfecting a Parisian accent policed by co-star Charlotte Le Bon and other “very honest” French actors on set. “I don’t know if I fooled French people but I fooled Americans,” he laughed.

Zemeckis’s films — not so much its loss or recovery as its stubborn persistence. “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away” and the “Back to the Future” movies are stories of optimists battling the cruelty of history and the indifference of the universe. Paris 1973 is where Petit begins to plan his coup – he sees an illustration of the as-yet unbuilt towers in a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, and decides on the spot what he has to do.

Around this time he meets a love interest, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), begins his training with ‘Papa’ Rudy Omankowsky (Ben Kingsley), a tightrope-walker of indeterminate Eastern European extraction, and starts to amass his co-conspirators. You could argue any of those categories but in my experience, if you focus too much on labeling things, you probably aren’t paying attention to what’s good about it,” said Gordon-Levitt.

In the film, the use of IMAX 3D is incredibly effective — but it’s a visual tool, working in concert with the character work and emotional attachment that the movie has already built up. Essentially, this is just preamble to the film’s crowning set-piece – but it enjoyably sets out why it matters, and is carried off with the panache of a comic heist movie. (Alan Silvestri’s superb score, which switches between pensive strings and antic jazz, brilliantly enhances both of the dominant moods.) And even before the big moment arrives, Zemeckis uses 3D in startling and innovative ways, turning surreally disembodied circus-performers’ legs into a living version of Edgar Degas’s The Curtain, and bringing a new, breath-catching intimacy to a kiss shot in tight close-up. I’d seen The Walk the previous night, and tell Zemeckis (this is true) that halfway through Petit’s stunt, my notepad started slowly sliding off my lap. While they case the towers in New York, Petit’s circus mentor, played by Ben Kingsley, wonders back home if his prize pupil will ever meet his ambitions.

And I wasn’t having an isolated experience in some clunky plastic headset; I was in a theater, feeding off the anxiety and energy of every other person watching at the same time. The film gets better as it goes, and the last half-hour (especially in 3-D on an Imax screen) is nearly everything it should be: scary, visually momentous, meticulously realized. Petit, he’s interested in tackling the impossible, which is to say in discovering new possibilities for delight and awe and celebrating the transformative power of human creativity. We see Philippe, forever the clown, don an elaborate series of disguises as he and his friends case the joint — a job made considerably easier after stepping on a nail forces him to use crutches, even if the foot injury is sure to complicate the stunt itself. And the second was to use the camera and perspective to induce what Zemeckis calls “subconscious movement”: the sense of high-up-ness, the Kierkegaardian dizziness, the imaginary wobble.

Bringing three accomplices over from France, Philippe recruits a handful of Americans, including wild-mustachioed Steve Valentine as their inside man and James Badge Dale as a slick electronics salesman. The emotional payoff, when it comes, isn’t out on the New York rooftops, but back in France: a single, subtle gesture from Kingsley that sums up the miracle at hand. Philippe may not be short on charisma, but Dale gets to do the fancy talking — and steals nearly every scene he’s in — whenever they’re trying to hide their French accents. It’s a lesson that’s even more important to remember today, when movies seem ported to things like 3D and IMAX not for any artistic intent, but for the sake of ticket prices and opening weekend bragging rights. On his day, Zemeckis has a better feel for the simple power of this stuff than almost anyone – and that (again, like Mad Max), the best cutting-edge spectacle filmmaking demands a bone-deep understanding of the medium’s past.

While Gallic buddy Jean-Louis takes the North Tower, Zemeckis follows Philippe and afraid-of-heights friend Jeff (Cesar Domboy) infiltrate the South one. Not yet open to the public, the building’s work-site hazards are every bit as unsafe as an under-construction Death Star —especially the open elevator shaft where Philippe and Jeff duck to hide from a passing security guard. The Manhattan skyline — digitally rendered to include the towers and to omit more recent construction — stretches out in the background, and the lady in the harbor stoically tolerates the presence of her voluble compatriot.

Zemeckis can get a little carried away at moments like these, indulging a “Vertigo”-like fantasy in which Jeff goes spinning off into the void, though it’s helpful to remember that he’s playing to his widest potential audience since “The Polar Express,” and he’s trying to psyche the kiddies up for the main attraction, once the guard leaves and the men can finally step out onto the roof. Zemeckis could’ve used the same advice, at least as a check on his impulse to dazzle us every second, instead of building incrementally to a breathtaking climax. Zemeckis is one of the younger members of the movie brat generation – the film-school trained directors who flooded into Hollywood’s studio system in the Seventies and early Eighties, with big things to prove. We’ll find out soon enough if Petit’s harrowing, beautiful act still resonates with voters looking to add a little bit of eye-popping wonder to their ballots. His contemporaries are Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma – but while he shares the first two’s instinct for showmanship, he’s unencumbered by Spielberg’s emotionalism and Lucas’s self-importance.

Camera (color, 3D), Dariusz Wolski; editor, Jeremiah O’Driscoll; music, Alan Silvestri; production designer, Naomi Shohan; supervising art director, Felix Lariviere-Charron; art director, Jean Kazemirchuk; set decorator, Ann Victoria Smart; costume designer, Suttirat Larlarb; sound (Dolby Digital), William B. But all of the bustling 3-D IMAX mugging and pratfalling is really just the warm-up act, as is the mildly diverting tale of the period in Philippe’s life leading up to what he calls “the coup.” Glimpsing a pretty busker on a Paris street (she’s singing a Leonard Cohen song in French), he steals her audience and then, bien sûr, her heart. He was born in 1952, and grew up in a blue-collar household on the south side of Chicago with parents who were mostly uninterested in cinema, or any other form of culture outside of TV. Sands, Brandon Proctor; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Baillie; visual effects and animation, Atomic Fiction; additional visual effects, Rodeo FX, Legend3D; visual effects and stereo producer, Camille Cellucci; stereoscopic supervisor, Jared Sandrew; special effects supervisor, Ryal Cosgrove; stunt coordinator, Marc Desourdy; wire walking & stunt double, Jade Kindar-Martin; hire-wire coach and consultant, Philippe Petit; assistant director, Darin Rivetti; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland.

Whereas the earlier sections suffered from an absence of dramatic conflict — Philippe is immune to doubt, averse to introspection and impossible to argue with — the Manhattan chapters hum with practical, tactical excitement. Immediately, he went in search of contemporary footage, but couldn’t find any, because none exists. “Philippe was on that wire for 45 minutes, and in the entire city of New York, no-one was able to scramble a motion picture camera in that amount of time and record a moving image of him.” he marvels. The how was complex, and the why proved inexplicable. “I realised it’s like asking any artist, ‘Why did you paint that painting?’” he says. “It’s a ridiculous question, though it’s one that everyone wants the answer to. Nothing can stop you.” This was around the time Zemeckis had started exploring a new method of filmmaking called performance capture, in which actors’ movements are fed into a computer and then applied to animated models.

The technique led to the digital-effects breakthroughs that gave life to Avatar’s Na’vi, the new Planet of the Apes films, and, perhaps most famously, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The film becomes a poem of metal and concrete, a symphony composed in glass and rebar, light and air and brought alive by an antic, crazy inspiration. But Zemeckis’s own experiments – most notoriously, the Christmas-themed animation The Polar Express – had a certain creepy quality, as if the switch behind their characters’ eyes marked ‘alive’ had never been flicked. “Mmm, mmm,” he says. “There’s a lot of it in there.” What? Even though the outcome is never in doubt — this may be the most spoiler-proof movie ever made — you can’t help but hold your breath and clutch the armrests when Philippe steps out into the sky.

Take the Aqaba battle scene in Lawrence of Arabia, he says, for which David Lean wrangled 450 horses and 150 camels. “While you’re watching it, you’re thinking ‘How in God’s name did they get all those animals to co-operate?’ Once everything’s fake, no-one will give a shit. People will eventually let go.” What does he think of Tarantino’s plan to retrofit 50 digital cinemas with celluloid projectors so they can screen his next film, The Hateful Eight, from 70mm prints? “Who’s doing that?” he splutters.

That film in turn was so successful that a script Zemeckis and his then-writing partner Bob Gale had been shopping around since the early 1980s was instantly snapped up by Universal, even though its subject matter didn’t exactly scream ‘mainstream hit’. Disney passed on it “specifically” because of its incestuous plot, says Zemeckis with a twinkle, while the other studios thought it was “too soft”: they saw it having mileage as it as an outrageous comedy in the style of Porky’s and couldn’t understand why he and Gale had written this potentially hair-curling story for a general audience. Why would you do that?” Well, Lucas has used it to more or less overhaul his best-known work to his apparent satisfaction, I say. “Yeah, I don’t know why he’s doing that,” he says, with a sardonic look. “And didn’t Steven [Spielberg] replace the agents’ guns in E.T. with walkie-talkies?” he continues. (He did indeed, for its 20th anniversary re-release.) “What’s the point of that?

To do it just because you can…I don’t understand it.” It’s only acceptable, he adds, is if the director also makes what he pointedly refers to as “the actual, real movie available”. Why would anyone do that?” He answers his own question. “Pre-sold title, that’s the reason,” he says – an industry term for a film with an established fan-base. It was just so brilliantly done that I couldn’t resist.” Didn’t it matter to him that the man being eaten alive was the hero? “No, I’d separated myself from that. Strangelove,” he says. “Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb.” It’s an outlandish, spectacular, frightening scene, yet it’s also an uproarious pleasure.

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