WTC tightrope docudrama ‘The Walk’ nails the landing

27 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Walk': NYFF Review.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has revealed he hopes his new movie about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre will bring back “beautiful memories” of the tragic buildings. Discussing The Walk at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, Robert Zemeckis was quick to distance himself from James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. 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.

Harnessing the wizardry of 3-D IMAX to magnify the sheer transporting wonder, the you-are-there thrill of the experience, the film’s payoff more than compensates for a lumbering setup, laden with cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy. 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’ delivery of such a sustained money shot — literally breathtaking, stomach-churning, sweat-inducing and exhilarating — should ensure solid numbers for Sony. 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. 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.

Zemeckis said he wasn’t initially aware of Petit’s death-defying act in 1974, but learned of it after coming across the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein. 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. 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.

This proves a big hurdle as Gordon-Levitt’s mop-top Philippe opens with some cringe-inducing direct-address, musing on the obvious question of “Why…? The fact that Petit’s most famous walk is still tremendously heart-pounding is a testament to the effectiveness of the visual techniques employed by Zemeckis — in 3D, they truly make you feel that you’re on the wire with Petit, 110 stories above Manhattan. 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. This sort of experience isn’t for everyone — a colleague told me he visited the men’s room shortly after the scene depicting Petit’s World Trade Center walk and encountered three people simultaneously vomiting.

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). 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 to 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, in the author’s words, “the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground.”) Few filmmakers have accomplished more seemingly impossible feats onscreen than Zemeckis, and here, the “Forrest Gump” helmer again proves his magician’s ability to blend character and technology in such a way that virtuoso style springs organically from the material itself. But in Gordon-Levitt’s self-regarding performance, the character is borderline obnoxious, right up until he acquires some vulnerability by virtue of the void stretching out beneath him.

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. The film also works too hard at injecting charm into Petit’s back story, not to mention finding contrived reasons for him to speak English with the band of “accomplices” he assembles in Paris as he prepares for his coup.

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. The idea of a Frenchman obsessed with conquering America is subliminally planted early via not one but three French-language versions of jukebox classics — “Sugar Sugar,” “Black is Black,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” And Philippe’s guitar-strumming sweetheart Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) is introduced crooning Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” en francais. Zemeckis uses the jazzy strains of Alan Silvestri’s score to instill the feel of a crime caper or a heist movie, but for much of the running time, conflict remains absent. 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.

Photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) signs on to help, also enlisting Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy), a math whiz who speaks little English and is terrified of heights. Mostly, I suspect, they want it to make money, since it’s something of a gamble to make a non-franchise film with a budget this big in this day and age. 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.

And unsurprisingly for a filmmaker like Zemeckis, who has shown a defining fascination with technological magic, it’s the focus on the specifics — research, planning, rigging, setbacks and lucky breaks — that finally tightens the storytelling grip. 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. Despite a preordained outcome that pretty much nixes any element of surprise, he builds suspense into the placement of the cable and its strategic support wires, the last-minute defection of jittery team members, the appearance of security guards and the more surreal introduction of a “mysterious visitor,” who appears on the rooftop at the eleventh hour like some kind of brooding Don Draper stepping into a dream.

While Gallic buddy Jean-Louis takes the North Tower, Zemeckis follows Philippe and his acrophobic friend Jeff (Cesar Domboy) infiltrate the South one. Wolski’s camera swoops like a bird, traveling the distance of the towers in both directions, giving us Petit’s point of view as well as hovering above him. 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.

It may fumble the preamble but The Walk works where it counts most, creating a spectacle of balletic beauty out of an act that otherwise remains inscrutable to the screenwriters. 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. Despite his intense physicality and manic energy, both the character and performance remain constricted by a script that tells rather than explores. “I am mad. 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.

Zemeckis does emphasize the point that New Yorkers were ambivalent about the towers that so radically altered the Manhattan skyline, crediting Petit’s captivating stunt with engendering affection for the twin steel-and-glass monoliths as construction neared completion. The choice to allude only obliquely to their disappearance after the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks, via a somber fade in the closing shot, shows welcome restraint in a movie whose final-act achievements erase the shortcomings of its belabored buildup. 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. 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. 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.

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.

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