Review: ‘The Walk,’ High-Wire Bravado at World Trade Center

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

Spectacle has gone over well enough at the Oscars in recent years. “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.

The wire on which Philippe Petit crossed between the two buildings of the World Trade Center on the morning of August 7, 1974, was held up by the towers themselves, stabilised with guy lines lashed to carefully chosen points around their edges, and secured around wooden bulwarks on either side.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. 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). 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. 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.

Gordon-Levitt plays him as an absolute nut, and it would seem like an exaggeration if the real Petit didn’t give off the same mad energy in Man On Wire, James Marsh’s excellent 2008 documentary. 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. 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. The problem “The Walk” faces is the fact that James Marsh’s 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” told this story rather definitively in the eyes of many.

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. The first time I watched the final, finished movie, I brought my parents with me, and that was quite amusing, to hear my dad gasp and yelp with exhilaration and adrenaline in the movie theater.

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. The combination of the large IMAX screen and Zemeckis’ restrained use of 3D places the audience there on the wire with Petit, providing an experience I’ve never had at a movie before. 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. After a brief introductory spiel by Petit, who’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film begins in earnest in Paris, with an image of the Eiffel Tower reflected, upside-down, in a puddle. (Straight away, Zemeckis turns the world upside down.) Gordon-Levitt is an actor it’s impossible not to warm to – even in the artfully refrigerated films of Christopher Nolan, he’s adorable – and he brings an easy charm to this born showman, making him someone you can’t help but watch.

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. 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.

Sony helped make a VR experience in connection with the movie, that lets you wear a Playstation VR headset and recreate part of Petit’s walk, and it’s certainly fun and scary in its own right. 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. Throughout shooting every shot, every composition, I would listen to him listen to his talk to his cinematographer specifically about how to compose it for the 3D format. In cheery, bold and bright tones, “The Walk” follows Petit as he enlists his colleagues, including his lover played by Charlotte Le Bon, on the adventure of a lifetime.

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. 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.

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. 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. One of the things you notice first is, as sensitive as he is with camera work, as visually motivated as he is, he always prioritizes performance, and maintaining a sincerity from the characters.

I don’t think there’s enough to work with here to necessarily get him into the supporting actor Oscar conversation, but he is easily one of my favorite elements of the film. Bob once said to me, “My favorite special effect is the close-up.” I thought that was a really profound way to say that no matter how visually expensive or slick your spectacular movie is, if the audience isn’t connecting to the character, it just doesn’t matter. 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 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.

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. Learning the French accent was a great challenge, as well as playing somebody who, on the one hand, is a brilliant artist and on the other hand, is losing his mind. 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.

But it’s sort of like if you compare the original “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan, who wrote the song, and then you compare that to the Jimi Hendrix recording, who kind of made it his own, they’re both great. After some practice and planning, the coup plotters head to New York, where they acquire a few more accomplices (including James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz and the scene-stealing Steve Valentine) and begin their infiltration of the as-yet-unfinished Trade Center. 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. I loved “3rd Rock from the Sun” for many reasons, but one of those reasons was that it did sort of afforded me the cushion to not have to take jobs just for money, and just do what I wanted to do based on what really inspired me. 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?

Why not film it for real? “It’d have been expensive, it’d have rained, it’d have been windy, the light would have changed,” he groans. “Impossible.” Besides, as far as Zemeckis is concerned, he did film it for real – or as real as film can ever be. “In a few years, this conversation is going to be over,” he says. “ Because in three-to-five years, providing you have good artists, digital moving images are going to be perfect. 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. He has used all his brazenness and skill to make something that, once it leaves the ground, defies not only gravity, but time as well. “The Walk” is rated PG (Some material may not be suitable for children). 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? 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.

His answer takes the form of a story about a preview screening of Jaws in 1975, which Spielberg had invited him to while he was still a jobbing writer. (Spielberg, five years Zemeckis’s senior, was something of a mentor: it was his full-blooded endorsement of the younger filmmaker’s talents that eased his first and second features into production, and the two later collaborated on the madcap war comedy 1941, Spielberg’s most Zemeckisian film.) Afterwards, Spielberg was discussing the audience’s reactions with him – he had been recording them at every screening, then fine-tuning the film to maximise communal screams and whoops – and mentioned one particularly troubling moment on the tape: a lone voice cheering and applauding during Robert Shaw’s horrific, blood-spluttering death scene. 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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