Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Walk

Alternate Title:  Peak French

One sentence synopsis:     A French tightrope walker conceives of and executes a daring plan to sneak onto the newly-constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center, and walk between them on a tightrope.

Things Havoc liked: Some years ago, I saw a documentary by the name of "Man on Wire" about a certifiable lunatic named Phillipe Petit who, in 1974, strung a high wire between the towers of the World Trade Center, and spent the following morning walking between them for all to see, with nothing but his own skills and a balancing pole between him and horrible death. The entire stunt was so... ludicrous, done not for any cause or political action, not because someone wanted to self promote, but because the acrobat in question simply felt a compulsion to do it, that it instantly captured everyone's imagination, and became the subject of books and documentaries and television specials the world over. In fact the director of the documentary, one James Marsh, when asked during the showing of his film at Tribeca why he had decided to make it the subject of his picture, responded that it was such perfect fodder for "a heist film", that he felt someone had to take it on. Well fast forward seven years, and what do you know, but someone has.

And not just someone, but legendary "visual storyteller" (his words) Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forest Gump and a whole bunch of extremely creepy 3D animated films from the 00s that we shall not speak of again. Zemeckis, like Ridley Scott or James Cameron, is a staggeringly visual director, one of the few serious filmmakers who always wholeheartedly embraced the 3D craze that I'm still hoping dies an eventual death. Zemeckis, I have every faith, did not sign onto 3D just to aggravate me, but because, moreso than even most of his peers, Zemeckis relies on his visual style to sell the experience his movies offer, be it the half-animated world of Roger Rabbit or the motion-captured non-Euclidian nightmare realm of The Polar Express. This time his subject is less out there, a period and a place, well two places really, specifically Paris and New York in the early 1970s, a time when Paris was a romantic, charming, magical place, and New York was... well moving on... Zemeckis films his tale of two cities in soft, muted lighting, with sweeping spectacle shots to drape the film in warm panoply of romantic nostalgia, even before the actor steps out onto his indescribably high wire. From the rich, cozy confines of a basement Bistro in Paris to the lofty heights of Notre Dame, Zemeckis clearly loves and wants everyone to love the idea of Paris in the 70s as being the most magical place in the world. It reminds me of Hugo, Martin Scorsese's love letter to cinema and to the Paris of a bygone day, and carries over even when the film reaches New York, which is a cinematic city but not a very romantic one, certainly not in the 1970s. Yet Zemeckis manages to make even the Twin Towers, which if I'm being honest, were two of the ugliest buildings ever erected, look good, emphasizing their simplistic styling and their sheer mass, humanizing the two lumps of undifferentiated concrete, letting us see the towers the way our frankly-deranged protagonist sees them.

And let us not be mistaken here, this protagonist is deranged, but in a very precise way that requires explanation. You see, my sister and I both attended French immersion schools from the age of four, speak the language fluently, know and love the country, the culture, the people, (the food), everything about France and all that is French, and we both agreed, when first we saw the Documentary, that Phillipe Petit is, without question, the Frenchest man to ever live upon the Earth. What we mean by that is in some way ineffable, a combination of illogical madness, artistic obsession, vivacious over-energized demeanor, and semi-crazed philosophical underpinnings that make no sense to anyone else and only some sense to him. And stepping into this demanding role as an insane French aerialist, we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of Inception and Dark Knight Rises and Looper and so many other things that I have overcome my antipathy towards his work and embraced him as an actor worth seeing in things. To satisfy me, a Francophile of considerable experience, was going to be a tough sell, but frankly, Gordon-Levitt does a marvelous job by portraying a character at the edge of a particularly French sort of insanity, with big, bold mannerisms and big bold obsessions that leave no room for self-doubt or distraction. His accent is atrocious, one step removed from Monty Python's French Knights, but his mannerisms and enthusiasm are perfect, indeed they almost render the comic-bad accent more appropriate, as this is a character who is effectively a living pantomime. He must walk across the Twin Towers, you see. He must do it because it is a Great Thing and Great Things must be done for their own sake and for the sake of utterly incomprehensible notions of art and life and respect for the spirits of great buildings and the honor of a performance or some damn thing. You run into notions like this in movies about otherwise rational men who willingly do dangerous things for no reason, movies like Rush or Everest, but none of them got across the almost tautological nature of an obsession like this the way this movie does, not by explaining it, but by safely placing it outside the realm of explanation. Mountains must be climbed because they are there, and tightropes must be walked upon in dramatic locations because that is what must happen, and notions of safety and legality are consequently irrelevant to the task.

Of course those notions aren't so irrelevant to everyone else in the world, and so we return to the notion of a Heist movie, which this film really is, except that the only thing being stolen is gravity. Most of the film is taken up with the antics of Petit and his band of like-minded "conspirators" as they plan out, Oceans' 11-style, their grand "coup" (these are the terms the movie uses). Even before 9/11, sneaking a heavy-duty tightrope cable up to the top of a skyscraper, contriving to string it across to another skyscraper, and anchoring it to the building at several points, in pitch darkness, all without being caught, is no mean feat. When the film is finally done with the setup, the rest of the movie is the walk itself, an extended promenade straight into hardcore vertigo that is fantastically tense despite depicting a real event which actually occurred and which we know the end result of. Even in a 2D showing, which was what I engaged in, the film is positively gorgeous, lovingly capturing New York at a specific moment in time, from a vantage point only one man ever reached, and none ever will again.

Things Havoc disliked: All of this is supremely well-done, as befits Robert Zemeckis, but that's... really all there is to the film. Characters, other than the main one, are more or less nonexistent, props for the heist or for Phillipe to bounce off of. Canadian Actress Charlotte Le Bon, playing Phillipe's musician girlfriend, has more or less nothing to do in the film but to, almost literally, bear witness to how crazy he is, watching him as he sets up the heist, pulls it off, and then heading home, with only a couple obligatory scenes of "why are you doing this?" concern to give the audience the chance to listen to Phillipe being French and crazy again. Even Sir Ben Kingsley, who was also in Hugo and about six billion other movies, has little to do as Papa Rudy, a Czech circus-master who serves as Phillipe's mentor, save for appearing once every half hour or so to dole out a penny-packet of wisdom on the philosophy (oh yes, there is more philosophy) of performance and life. I don't mind wise old mentor figures, certainly not when they're played by actors as august as Ben Kingsley, but it's only polite to actually give them something to do in the film beyond lending their name to the marketing campaign.

Final thoughts:    The Walk is another one of those frustrating films whose only real flaws are that they have limited horizons, movies I like but always feel bad about not giving a higher score to, as they didn't really do anything wrong. But whatever the hangups inherent in my scoring system, the film itself is a wonderful, atmospheric, enjoyable little character piece, one which, if the stories told be true, heavily involved the real Phillipe Petit, who personally taught Gordon-Levitt both how to tightrope walk and, presumably, how to be sufficiently French. A great and lasting masterwork it is not, but as a film designed to capture a person, a place, a time, and a couple of buildings that are normally associated in most Americans' minds with an entirely different, considerably less whimsical event, The Walk is a film it's hard to find fault with.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  A Halloween Spooktacular Special!  Stay tuned!

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