Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Walk: Nary a misstep

The Walk (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for minor profanity and chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.2.15

And I worried that this film might be dull.

The saga of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, in the summer of 1974? OK, granted; it was an amazingly audacious stunt, and an impressive display of awesome dexterity and physical prowess. But how in the world could that sustain a two-hour film?

Once they've become an item, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shares his impossible,
idealistic scheme with Annie (Charlotte Le Bon): to somehow run a cable between the two
closest corners of New York's fabled Twin Towers, and then to embark on the most
incredible — and dangerous — wire walk ever attempted.
Silly me.

Director Robert Zemeckis’ exhilarating depiction of Petit’s bold feat is almost as exciting as the historic walk itself. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking, crystal-clear camera angles blend seamlessly with Kevin Baillie’s visual effects, to put us “right there” at virtually impossible moments.

I haven’t been this dazzled by a film’s visuals since Claudio Miranda’s Academy Award-winning work in 2012’s Life of Pi.

Wolski and Baillie also make excellent use of their 3D effects, for which this film clearly was designed. The dimensionality is integrated smoothly, often to enhance the sense of vertigo — particularly during the third act — as we peer down from the top of one of the towers. 3D cinematography hasn’t been used this well since Martin Scorsese’s marvelous handling of the technology, in 2011’s Hugo.

Inevitably, whether at a circus or elsewhere, we always watch wire-walkers from below; it simply isn’t possible to do otherwise. But that’s precisely what Zemeckis and his team pull off: We often experience Petit’s work from above — disorienting enough — or even as if we’re standing alongside him.

Our rational minds insist that what we’re watching couldn’t possibly be real, just as our hearts suggest otherwise.

Which is a reaction that Petit, an impudent showman through and through, would both understand and encourage.

The riveting screenplay — by Zemeckis and co-scripter Christopher Browne, based on Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds — also contributes greatly to this film’s enthralling allure. Zemeckis and Browne don’t treat this as “mere” build-up to a fleeting display of athletic grace; it is, instead, one of cinema’s ultimate, clenched-knuckle heist flicks, told with the panache and verbal flamboyance of a circus barker.

Again, an apt comparison, since star Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes Petit the ultimate bold rascal: a mischievous scoundrel with a twinkle in his eye, who passionately narrates his own story, frequently breaking the fourth wall — and addressing us directly — in order to do so. (Recall that Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump did much the same, in Zemeckis’ 1994 adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel.)

We get an immediate indication of the visual wizardry at work, as Gordon-Levitt’s Petit recounts his saga while standing in an improbably high spot atop the Statue of Liberty ... from where he can gaze across New York Harbor toward the fabled Twin Towers, site of his legendary exploit.

“Fabled” being the operative term, four decades later.

Petit’s once-in-a-lifetime wire walk is inextricably linked to those majestic structures, and filmgoers can be forgiven a moment of doubt, wondering whether it’s still too soon to be reminded of so painful a national loss. Rest assured: Zemeckis is as respectful as Petit himself was, when — still in France — he first learned of the then-almost-complete towers, and felt drawn to them on a psychic level.

Indeed, Zemeckis’ film honors not only Petit, but the towers themselves: an artistic statement that helps us move beyond the reflexive grimace of pain, at their mere mention, and instead reminds us of their origin as a glorious declaration of bravura engineering and national pride.

A lofty sentiment, to be sure ... but Zemeckis pulls it off.

Yes, we’ve seen these events before, most particularly in James Marsh’s 2008 Academy Award-winning documentary, Man on Wire. But Zemeckis adds an element of heightened energy that frequently makes his film even better than real life.

The story begins in France, as young Philippe — briefly played, in these early scenes, by Soleyman Pierini — becomes transfixed by the high-wire work of the Omankowsky Troupe, a family of circus performers led by the imperious “Papa Rudy” (Ben Kingsley). When the boy grows old enough to be accepted as a student, he seeks lessons and advice from Papa Rudy, but their relationship is prickly at best; the older man insists on doing things his way, which invariably seems too slow and (needlessly) cautious to the impatient Philippe.

They part, with Philippe honing his craft as a street busker in Paris, a new “avocation” that leads to a meet-cute encounter with Annie Allix (the charming and adorable Charlotte Le Bon, well remembered from last year’s The Hundred-Foot Journey). Le Bon and Gordon-Levitt share wonderful chemistry, and as a couple they’re too cute for words ... although it quickly becomes apparent that the artistically driven Petit calls the shots in their relationship.

Petit learns of the New York’s soon-to-be-completed Twin Towers, and becomes transfixed by the temptation they represent: the ultimate wire walk, between the towers’ two closest corners (a distance of 200 feet, at a height of 1,368 feet). He shares this dream with Annie and, soon thereafter, amateur photographer and “voice of reason” Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and free-spirited Jean-François (César Domboy), the latter amusingly terrified of heights.

But it quickly becomes clear that Philippe desperately needs the professional guidance that only Papa Rudy can provide, particularly when it comes to technical details such as cable strength and tension, and how to locate and anchor the necessary cavalletti (support cables). A bargain of sorts is struck, with Papa Rudy again becoming a crusty mentor (a role that Kingsley delivers impeccably).

Once in New York, the team expands to include fast-talking salesman/con artist Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) and Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), an “inside man” who happens to work in an office on the 82nd floor of the south tower.

It’s perhaps important to note that some of the lesser members of Petit’s team, as depicted here, are composites “built” from actual individuals omitted from this drama (such as American photographer Jim Moore). That said, all the key individuals introduced above are based on their real-life counterparts; Valentine even looks much like the actual Greenhouse, complete with the somewhat sinister handlebar mustache and Van Dyck beard.

Such casting touches aside, Zemeckis and Browne’s script really kicks into gear once we get down to the final few weeks prior to the Aug. 7 walk, at which point the story displays its fascinating caper elements. Petit and his crew never could have obtained permission to embark on this gambit, so their planning and execution represent a true Impossible Mission, with enough coincidences, minor disasters and lucky breaks to keep us at the edge of our seats for an entire hour.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, knowing the actual outcome doesn’t matter; we still sweat all the details.

Gordon-Levitt delivers a commanding, mesmerizing performance, complete with an inflection-perfect French accent. He’s simply spine-tingling on camera, exuding the enthusiastic bonhomie that made the actual Petit so impossible to resist. Gordon-Levitt also display the necessary strength and physical grace, whether setting out along a high wire, or immersing himself in the droll mime routines of Petit’s early busking days.

Alan Silvestri’s equally enthusiastic, jazz-laden score also is a treat: alive with fanfares and orchestral melodies that mirror the joie de vivre with which Zemeckis fills every frame. Not since John Williams’ work on 2002’s Catch Me If You Can has a film score been this much fun.

The Walk is bravura filmmaking in every respect: an exhilarating two hours that play even better on a massive IMAX screen. Next time somebody asks you to cite a movie with a true “sense of wonder,” put this one at the top of the list.

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