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Film Review: The Walk

The Walk (2015; Directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks literal tightropes, but he also walks a figuratively tightrope in his personality and philosophy. He balances between maniacal dedication and playful charm, between insufferably whimsical tweeness (he is a French street performer, how much more twee can one get?) and serene, almost transcendent grace. He has the subversive and anarchic instincts of an uncompromising street artist, but when his illegal art is revealed to the world, his audience (which includes the supposedly oppressive state authorities) gasps in wonder and delight even while nothing vital is really subverted. He is both an unstable, unreliable trickster and a heroic protagonist in his own magnificent odyssey, a man who converts followers and accomplices for his grand scheme and alienates them almost as quickly.

Petit’s grand scheme – his “coup” as he calls it in a punning French/English hybrid – will be familiar to buffs of Manhattan-centric 1970s cultural ephemera, as well as to viewers of James Marsh’s fantastic Oscar-winning documentary, Man On Wire. Petit, who had previously performed guerrilla high-wire walks between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge (only the former makes it into this film), glimpses a magazine image of the under-construction twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Centre in 1973 and conceives of a mad plot to rig his wire between them and walk across it, 110 stories above the pavement of Lower Manhattan.

Everybody in his life, from his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) to his wirewalking mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) to his friend and “official photographer” Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) to his cadre of accomplices (the excellent James Badge Dale as a French-speaking New Yorker master talker, César Domboy as a loyal but acrophobic French math teacher, Steve Valentine as a magnificently mustachioed insurance company dandy who is their WTC inside man, Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel as stock stoners) thinks him completely bugnuts insane for even dreaming up such an act. But they help him to make it a reality, perhaps realizing that being denied in his ambition will make him even crazier and perhaps being seduced by the eccentric, intoxicating grandiosity of the “coup”.

Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis is certainly intoxicated by the grandiosity of Petit’s wondrous high-wire act, and constructs The Walk in anticipation and in celebration of it. The sustained climax of the coup is The Walk‘s obvious hook, and Zemeckis and his team utilize the full digital design toolset and narrative shaping expansion set to render Petit’s audacious feat of death-defying artistry as a vertiginous spectacle of maximum memorability and visceral impact. Be forewarned: if you have any sort of problem with heights, The Walk will trigger it often and fiercely. If you do not have a problem with heights, The Walk may well aid you in developing one. I have seen Man on Wire and know that Petit both succeeds in performing his precarious walk and lives to tell about it. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building and several lofty European bell towers, not to mention taken a helicopter flight above a lush Hawaiian island. None of this served to prevent my palms from sweating for 45 solid minutes of absorbing but psychologically unnerving cinema in The Walk. I can’t recall ever having such a pure, potent physical reaction to a movie, and for that alone Zemeckis deserves credit.

He deserves credit, too, for bringing together many elements of disparate nature and quality from the establishing acts of The Walk to maximize the sequence’s prodigious impact. Just as Man on Wire did with its lower-budget re-enactments, The Walk frames the coup in the generic terms of a heist caper, focusing on its details and minutae, its ingenious flourishes, its odd twists, and above all the multiple close calls of its premature discovery by the authorities who might shut it down. The audience’s resistance is so weakened by the maintenance of tension for such an extended period that it is helpless in the face of Zemeckis’ photo-real re-creation of the wire walk itself. Our fears and concerns are also carefully seeded by previous wire-walking scenes, each one presenting vividly what might go wrong for Philippe Petit 1,300 feet in the air: heavy winds, inadequate rigging, and loss of mental and physical concentration could all doom him to a fatal plunge into the void.

Zemeckis does such a thorough number on our psychological impulses that he neglects the sense of summoned wonder that motivated Petit and thrilled both the walker himself and his live impromptu audience on that August morning in 1974. Even as he struts across the wire, gaining confidence and performative bravado with each careful step, Petit’s act in The Walk pins us down but doesn’t so much raise us up. It’s a tremendously viscerally affecting cinematic moment but not really a transcendent one. Why is this?

Although Gordon-Levitt’s performance in this sequence is both elevated and grounded (it’s hard to imagine another near-A-level actor who has the requisite mix of puckish twinkle and graceful physical command to pull off this particular role), Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne saddle the moment with so much extraneous visual and reactive baggage that it is dragged down just so slightly, like a wire loosened of its vital tensile strength. Alan Silvestri’s score swells, Petit’s accomplices on the towers and on the ground weep and woop in joy, the collecting crowd’s awe is lacquered on thick, massively stereotyped Noo Yawk police urge him off the wire and react cartoonishly when he dances away from their reach, and blood from a foot injury soaks through the wirewalker’s shoe, like a balletic French version of Curt Schilling in the 2004 World Series.

These lingering weights are carryovers from the rest of the film, which runs the gamut from goofy to cliched to downright irritating when it’s not set a quarter-mile above the ground. Perhaps due to Petit’s involvement in the production as Gordon-Levitt’s high-wire coach and a general consultant on all elements of the art, Zemeckis and his team greatly overestimate how much of the man’s unwavering whimsy will be tolerable to audiences. Not content with the manic presence of Gordon-Levitt’s Petit in every scene of the proper narrative, Zemeckis and Browne place him as an omniscent narrator of the events on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, looking across the stretch of New York Harbour at the World Trade Centre. Even if this framing device grants The Walk a subtle and eloquent closing nod to the towers’ telling absence from the current Manhattan skyline, it’s just another case of the film going for a bit too much.

So much of The Walk‘s framing of Philippe Petit and the incredible performance between the World Trade Centre towers that is his legacy hinges on his pursuit and eventual completion of this nigh-on impossible dream, and of this dream ultimately meaning something profound and even sublime. Zemeckis and Browne put all of their eggs of signification in the basket of conventional inspirational movie tropes, urging the romantic diaspora in the multiplexes to Follow Their Dreams like Petit did, impossible as they might seem. But they do not consider for a moment whether the masses are willing to follow where the shining example of Philippe Petit (highly acquired taste that he is) leads.

What is certain is that they are not able to. Petit’s WTC walk was truly singular. No other person ever stood where he stood and saw what he saw, and thanks to another devious plot involving the towers, no other person ever will. Robert Zemeckis’ laudably impressive technical and psychological mastery of epic image-making puts moviegoers in Petit’s place, or as close as they ever can be, via the medium of a huge screen and 3D glasses. But even as the The Walk approximates this otherwise inaccessible experience, it cannot access its meaning, if it indeed has any meaning to speak of. For Philippe Petit, alone on a wire at the pinnacle of the world’s metropolis, the experience was no doubt profound and beautiful. But for spectators, on the towers or at street level that day or in theatre seats forty years later, it is but a vicarious sublimity, an angel walk that we can only marvel at and never share. What Petit and Zemeckis conceive of as a generous act is more of a self-centered one; it cannot take us out of our own limited lives because it leaves no space for us on such a high, thin stage to go along with it. An inspiration that no one can ever aspire to, a closed beauty. Whatever you do, don’t look down.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:08 am

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