Friday, October 23, 2015

New movie review: The Walk

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit in director Robert Zemeckis' fact-based visual extravaganza The Walk.

It would not be unreasonable to wonder why Robert Zemeckis felt the need to make The Walk. After all, the same story is told to great effect in the excellent, Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. However, one need only look at Zemeckis’ lengthy career and the kind of films he has always made to understand the draw of Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Consider this selection from Zemeckis’ directorial filmography: the Back to the Future trilogy; Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; The Polar Express; Death Becomes Her; Flight; and of course, Forrest Gump. Though wildly different in form and content, all of these films share Zemeckis’ gift for awe-inspiring imagery and boundary-pushing visual effects. Seen through that lens, the director would have been remiss to pass up the opportunity to recreate not only a death-defying stunt but the entirety of the World Trade Center.

Zemeckis and first-time feature writer Christopher Browne base their screenplay on Petit’s book about the “coup,” as Petit calls it, To Reach the Clouds. As a result, the film is infused with Petit’s roguish zeal and unique world view. To him, the stunt is not crazy. It is a stroke of brilliance destined to go down as one of the great artistic achievements of the century. If it does not quite reach those lofty heights, it is no less a remarkable feat of human ingenuity and audacity.

The great thing about Petit, here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is that he never once doubts his cause or conviction. This is simply something he must do. In this way, it is easy to see how he attracts the co-conspirators in his coup. This charming, heavily accented Frenchman’s belief makes you want to believe in him. Had he been a religious zealot, Petit probably could have formed a cult. Instead, he chose to walk the wire and to convert people to the cause of his art.

Gordon-Levitt is an ideal Petit for Zemeckis and is himself possessed of the same charisma that attracted people to Petit. The movie is split into two unequal sections. The final 30 minutes are Zemeckis’ playground for showing the walk, but the first 90 minutes are all setup for the stunt. Gordon-Levitt is asked to carry this first section and does so with aplomb. He is fun, fearless, and light on his feat, guilelessly driving the narrative forward and engendering good will until Zemeckis can unleash his special-effects wizardry.

Charlotte Le Bon and Gordon-Levitt in The Walk.
The script is a witty breeze, and the supporting cast is a delight, in particular Ben Kingsley as brusque mentor Papa Rudy and Charlotte Le Bon as ever-supportive love interest Annie, but everything works in service of the film’s climax. Few people will leave the theater talking about how good of a juggler Petit is or how lovely his relationship is with fellow street artist Annie – both patently true observations but quite beside the point. The film lives or dies with the walk.

Well, the film more than lives. It soars. I had the good fortune of seeing The Walk in true IMAX 3D. If asked to guess, I would say it likely benefits from the larger format and added depth of field, but there is nothing about the filmmaking to suggest it would not hold up on a regular movie screen.  I would, however, urge you to see it on the biggest screen possible and certainly not to wait for home video, which simply could not replicate the experience.

For sheer visual panache and emotional acuity, there is little to rival the grandeur of the Twin Towers as seen in this film. The closest comparison might be James Cameron’s Titanic, featuring another towering human achievement lost to tragedy. The difference of course is that few people who saw Titanic were personally affected by the ship’s sinking, whereas even 14 years later, the wounds of the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers are still fresh, particularly for New Yorkers.

There is resonance simply in seeing the buildings brought back to life. The skyline was less crowded then, and the Twin Towers are immediately iconic, though not universally loved at the time. In fact, some credit Petit’s stunt with turning public sentiment in favor of the buildings. It is easy to see how as Zemeckis shows us the World Trade Center through the eyes of someone who instantly recognizes its beauty and significance.

The camera swoops and swings and dips and dives around the buildings, and from the bottom up, we are confronted with their massive scale. When Petit stands on the edge of the roof, we stand there with him, and when he finally steps out onto the wire, we walk with him. This is the purest promise of cinema fulfilled, showing us something we have never seen and taking us places we could never go. For the final half-hour of The Walk, we are all part of the coup

The film ends with a consideration of the impermanence of monuments such as the Twin Towers, striking a melancholy tone that complements and lends gravity to the popcorn-movie fun that comes before. As much as we may want them to, the things we build are unlikely to last forever, but the things we achieve have the power to echo through eternity. This insight was Petit’s genius, and his gift to us was to share it the best way he knew how – by walking on his wire.

See it? Yes.

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