Joseph Gordon-Levitt Got A Crash Course In Wire Walking For The Walk

27 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A loving resurrection of the Twin Towers opens NY Film Fest.

New York — In the months and years after 11 September, the World Trade Center was swept out of the movies. Gordon-Levitt, who stars in the New York Film Festival opener “The Walk”, recalled to Tatum saying, “The time you… broke into my house, and surprised me when I was sleeping in order to prove that I should probably take better care to protect myself.

A filmmaker with a gift for overcoming the seemingly impossible puts audiences in the place of the man who walked between the Twin Towers in this gripping human-interest story. Philippe stunned New Yorkers in 1974 when he erected a wire between the north and south towers, which were still incomplete, and walked between them without a safety harness.

The PG pic, which Sony will release on Sept. 30, was greeted warmly by the audience at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, which saw it in 3D — one particularly thrilling scene received applause, and there was a 30-second ovation when the end-credits began to roll. Since then, the skyline where the Towers once formed the “H” in the poster for Woody Allen’s Manhattan has seldom been more than glimpsed on the big screen.

But at a splashy Tavern on the Green after-party, industry insiders were divided about whether it will resonate with Academy members like Man on Wire, the 2008 documentary feature about Petit that took home an Oscar. “It’s a privilege to premiere this movie in New York,” co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis remarked from the stage before the screening, acknowledging the deep connection many New Yorkers still feel to the iconic buildings that have been gone for more than 14 years now. 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.

You can say it felt wonderful, it felt great, it felt beautiful, but none of those words suffice and that is why this movie is so great because it can show you visually. Zemeckis’s last movie, Flight, proved that the master of mainstream spectacle behind the likes of Back to the Future, Cast Away and Forrest Gump could also capably manage gritty drama.

Luckily, Zemeckis shares his gift for hyperbole, and together, they re-create the wild dream as only cinema can, giving audiences a thrilling 3D, all-angles view of an experience that, until now, only one man on Earth could claim to have lived. The film, which opens in theatres 2 October, is about high-wire artist Phillippe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) cabled walk between the Towers in 1974. And finally he acknowledged in the audience Petit himself, who is now 66 but still loves playing to a crowd and acknowledged the applause he received by jumping up onto his chair and waving while balancing on one leg.

Save the – very tense – plane crash sequence, Flight was minimal by the film-maker’s standards, and successful with it: sparse treatment suiting the strong performances and powerful story. One interesting thing about The Walk is that it is immensely suspenseful to watch despite the fact there’s never any doubt that Petit, a Werner Herzog-like character, will survive his crazy adventure. Speaking of tentpoles, “The Walk” takes its cues from the circus, where 8-year-old Philippe first laid eyes on a tightrope act, and from which his flamboyant performance style eventually sprung, with the coaching of possibly Czech circus honcho Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, sporting a wild Europudding accent worthy of “The Room’s” Tommy Wiseau). Indeed, even if one didn’t seen Petit at the screening, isn’t old enough to recall the actual events, didn’t see the doc and hasn’t read Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds (from which Zemeckis and Christopher Browne derived their screenplay), that much is made clear from the start of the film by — somewhat strangely — having Gordon-Levitt’s Petit recount his own story, with the accent and charm of Maurice Chevalier (or Pepe Le Pew), from the top of the Statue of Liberty sometime before Sept. 11, 2001.

Intrigued by the “little eight-page book”, Zemeckis said, he began his research into the story and found that “it had all the elements to make a compelling movie”. “Philppe’s not one to do anything halfway, so he orchestrated this really elaborate workshop where it was just me and him all day long for eight days straight,” the actor said. “He said: ‘By the end of these eight days you’ll walk on the wire yourself.’ I thought that sounded ambitious, but he’s such a positive thinker. 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 star. Even in “(500) Days of Summer,” he displays a touch of the melancholy, though he does earn points for commitment, going to the trouble of delivering a significant portion of his dialogue in French. To recreate the skyscrapers, Zemeckis, production designer Naomi Shohan and visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie spent months on the digital effects, models and sets that would double for the Towers.

Still, resemblance matters, since the 1974 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.” Whatever one thinks of Gordon-Levitt’s weird wig and contacts, the physical aspects of his performance do impress as he adopts the lithe, catlike moves of a professional funambulist — and the attitude of a flip French artiste. For the whole of its two-hour running time, it plays like a Disney cartoon, right down to the hammy sidekicks who aid Petit on his mission (the exception is Petit’s girlfriend, Annie Allix, who Charlotte Le Bon somehow suggests may be a living, breathing person). With its narrow windows and vertical patterns, the 1963 building at the corner of Woodward and Jefferson Avenue is perhaps the architect’s “best expression of the tall building idea,” according to Detroit Free Press writer John Gallagher, whose latest book is “Yamasaki in Detroit: A Search for Serenity” (Wayne State University Press). It’s probably the most loving big-screen ode to the Towers (which weren’t so beloved when first built) since the poet-tour guide Timothy Speed Levitch lied between them, gazing upward wondrously, in Bennett Miller’s 1998 documentary, The Cruise. There are moments in “The Walk” where the camera does impossible things, whether hovering above Philippe’s head as he balances some 1,300 feet off the ground or peering through an advertisement torn from a French magazine, upon which Philippe has doodled a thin line between the not-yet-built Trade Center towers.

As Gallagher describes in his introduction, “Only by standing amid one of his projects can one feel the surprise and delight that Yama strove so hard to create.” Those reactions hit audiences of “The Walk” when Petit does his famous wire walk. I mean, the documentary did less than $3 million, so people don’t know the story.” Rothman and everyone associated with The Walk obviously would love for it to resonate with critics, moviegoers and awards voters in the same way that Life of Pi did — but that’s a tall order for any film. When it comes time for the Academy to weigh in on the film, I expect it will be a top contender for visual effects; a possible contender for sound editing and sound mixing; and an on-the-bubble prospect for picture, director, actor, adapted screenplay and original score (Alan Silvestri has been nominated for two other Zemeckis films).

Shame, then, that these spectacular visuals are undercut with silly voiceover which has Gordon-Levitt explaining his thought-processes every step of the way. 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. 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. 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.

While Gallic buddy Jean-Louis takes the North Tower, Zemeckis follows Philippe and his acrophobic friend Jeff (Cesar Domboy) infiltrate the South one. Zemeckis can get a little carried away at moments like these, indulging a “Vertigo”-like fantasy in which Jeff goes spinning off into the open elevator shaft where Philippe and Jeff duck to hide from a passing security guard — 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 observation deck. Oddly, the rooftop scenes yield some of the movie’s least cinematic footage, a bit too obviously shot on ground-level soundstages (though real-life details keep things lively, as in an amusing bit where Philippe inexplicably strips off all his clothes to retrieve the arrow shot between the towers).

Maybe Zemeckis is just saving his mojo for the moment when the wire is finally suspended between the buildings and Philippe is ready to take his first step out into the void. Dariusz Wolski’s often-virtual camera, occasionally relying on performance-capture and other visual-effects tricks that he and Zemeckis innovated during their ugly but ultimately useful all-CG phase.

The digitally projected picture appears fuzzy and out-of-focus on such a big screen, making it tough to judge (or fully appreciate) whatever care went into re-creating period details too far off to make out. We yearn to see their expressions, to share in their wonder. “The Walk” is an event to be witnessed, and too much of the detail seems lost on such an enormous format. Still, in addition to being a staggering spectacle, it is also an imminently relatable human story, and that should read loud and clear on any screen.

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