Saturday, October 10, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE WALK (2015)

The fall of the Twin Towers was the apotheosis of Philippe Petit. If, as a character says in Robert Zemeckis's film, the french wirewalker gave the World Trade Center towers a soul, when they had before seemed to many like two obscene skyscraping file cabinets, in their absence the still-living Petit can be seen as the soul of the towers. The old testament of the gospel of Petit is the documentary Man on Wire (2008). Zemeckis's fictionalization of the story is the new testament, with his Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) preaching over an idealized Manhattan, the towers still in place, from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. No need is felt to remind us that Lady Liberty is an older New York deity that came to us from France. Petit is a particularly cinematic god. He is part Harold Lloyd, part King Kong; tethered to concrete though he may be, the sky is his playground. As played by Gordon-Levitt, he's the sort of charming, dashing Frenchman who used to be a commonplace in Hollywood, and The Walk plays like one of those international-cast caper pictures that played around the world when Philippe was growing up.  It's a charming throwback of a picture in many ways, but the main attraction, of course, is the three-dimensional illusion of going out on the wire between the towers with our hero. For the most part it's pretty spectacular, with arguably some of the best CGI illusions ever. It's more impressive than much of the turbulent business in sci-fi and superhero pictures because it meets a bigger challenge of passing for something real and solid. After growing sick of how blatantly fake CGI skies have come to look, I had my faith renewed a bit by Zemeckis and his special-effects team, who wisely focus on skylines rather than sky.

Overall The Walk is no masterpiece. It's a little too cute about its nostalgic Frenchness for its own good, and most of Petit's motley crew of accomplices are little more than sketches of characters, though Ben Kingsley inevitably stands out as a crusty mentor figure and Charlotte Le Bon charms as a musician who temporarily subordinates her ambitions to Petit's. Its attempts at suspense as Petit and a partner dodge guards on the 110th floor the night before the "coup" are pointless since we're all at the theater to see the walk we know will happen, but I suppose they serve to remind us how near a thing the walk was. If anything the night before is presented as more of a nail-biter than the walk itself. On the wire Gordon-Levitt is more Chaplinesque in his mastery than Lloyd-like; Harold would show fear all the way. Thankfully, cops appear on both towers to create more suspense through their holy-shit anxiety -- they're like characters in a found-footage movie that way -- and it's almost needless to say that their futile attempts to lure our hero back to safety take us back a little to silent-movie days. There's true thrill-comedy in the classic style every time Petit gracefully reverses course on the wire, first hoisting his balancing pole over his head and onto his shoulders, then turning on the proverbial dime, and with a bloody foot, to keep the show going on. The film's virtues may be wasted on audiences who want more out of a 3-D movie than a man walking a wire, but they're the ones missing out. The Walk is by no means the best movie of the year, but it's certainly one of the most likable movies we've had in some time.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Yes it is no masterpiece of the cinema, but it is quite likable indeed, and a riveting watch. Tough to look at if you are deathly afraid of heights as I am, though a past award winning documentary by James Marsh and Mordecai Gerstein's Caldecott Medal winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers have traveled the same territory. The new film, directed by Robert Zemekis is exceedingly well made and riveting, even if it could be argued some of the material was as stretched as the amazing rope that was run across the 112th deck of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. The film packed an emotional wallop in view of the knowledge of what happened in 2011. The Frenchman Phillipe Petit, who managed this death defying feat is now a native New Yorker, who had received a free pass to the towers after he performed some community service in Central Park after his arrest for trespassing.

Terrific review here!