The Walk (2015)

★★★

The Walk PosterDirector: Robert Zemeckis

Release Date: October 9th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Adventure; Biography; Drama

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley

In 1896 the Lumière brothers screened one of their debut films, L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat. Legend mischievously has it that audience members, shocked by the sight of a steam locomotive moving towards them, fled from the vicinity with vigour. It’s one of those historic stories draped in romanticism that you desperately want to believe, and films such as The Walk give credence to stories such as those. The Walk isn’t as authentic as James Marsh’s brilliant Man on Wire, but then that documentary never dangled us 1,350 feet above Lower Manhattan.

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not believe in “getting a permit”. He can say that again. After biting into a sugary sweet, the French street performer scuttles over to his local dentist and then moans about having to struggle through two hours of toothache as he waits for an appointment. He ain’t the only one squirming for two hours; if you don’t get along especially well with heights, things might get a bit tetchy. Petit’s pain-stricken time at the dentist acts as a catalyst for what he would later call the “artistic coup of the century”: a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.

But before we can ascend, there is stuff to do. Narrative, or set-up, or something. The visuals down on ground level are oddly ropey. It’s as if the film is trying to mix a Toy Story-esque texture with real life, and it doesn’t quite work. The objective is clear and sort of understandable: to evoke a fairy tale quality that supports Petit’s impossible task, one bearing mythical connotations. But the uncanny aesthetic funds a light, sprightly momentum when perhaps something grittier would have been more interesting — the real Petit, for instance, has never shunned away from acknowledging his foolish qualities. In fairness, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does energetic vanity well.

Writer-director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne do at least shed some light on Petit’s stubbornness. The performer’s selfish mantra in the pursuit of artistic merit places unfair stress on his friends and family, a sentiment also explored in Everest. As such Petit veers exceedingly close to unlikeable, which would be fine if the film wasn’t so hell-bent on trying to sell him as the dream-conquering saviour of New York. The screenplay takes liberties with specific true events. In Man on Wire, Petit admits to cheating on his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) immediately after achieving his goal, but the film shies away from this revelation and the alternative it proposes is unsatisfactory.

Petit’s characterisation could be bolder. In an interview on the Empire Podcast, Zemeckis revealed why he chose to selectively colour his lead: “The character I thought the audience could identify with is the one that I portrayed”. His reasoning is fair, but the director is underselling his audience’s willingness to empathise with shades of grey. Towards the end, one of Petit’s comrades suggest he has finally given soul to the Twin Towers, which might also be a fabrication. But at least this is part of Zemeckis’ attempt to pay homage to the World Trade Center post-9/11, and the idealistic notion is actually quite sweet.

Back in France we occasionally rendezvous with Ben Kingsley, playing tutor Papa Rudy, who sports a non-specific European accent — it’s all over the place and nowhere in particular. One of the team members recruited by Petit to fulfil his self-penned destiny suffers from vertigo, while another, who spends the film intoxicated on drugs, jokes about the height of the stunt (though to be fair, the latter’s Shaggy from Scooby-Doo demeanour is quite amusing). Petit himself donates to this atmosphere of farce with statements such as, “I whisper so the demons won’t hear me”.

It is all quite ludicrously caper-ish. Ocean’s Eleven atop the world’s tallest building. As the team plans Petit’s vertical-turned-horizontal heist, the tightrope walker dawns a number of amusing disguises: reporter, construction worker (foot impaled by nail included), tourist, businessman. Composer Alan Silvestri even occasionally treats us to Mission: Impossible’s famous vacillating whistle. The soundtrack also borrows from Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, fielding a cantankerous drum and jazz beat aided by the prevailing tension. Thankfully there is no rushing during The Walk.

Inevitably, the outing has to wade through a sea of invasive anticipation. Most of the events that occur during the opening two-thirds are fine, but we’re only really here to trial the fearful majesty of high, high, high-wire walking. Following Petit’s lead — his calming influence is a saviour — the first time we peer over the edge of the World Trade Center an undeniable rush of exhilaration and terror ensues. This is where Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography really comes to fruition, at night unveiling a wonderful neon carpet below, and during the day capturing the voluminous bustle of New York City. The towers look incredible too; it’s nice seeing them relayed in such a positive light.

But is the walking part of The Walk just a stunning gimmick, or is it a genuine cinematic experience? Probably a bit of both. As Petit steps onto his wire you brace yourself in much the same way someone would prior to pelting down a steep slope on the world’s fastest roller coaster, but the sequence also incorporates classic movie tropes: burgeoning threat, visual amazement, a visceral personal reaction. There is one moment involving a seagull that almost ruins the spectacle (it’s ridiculous and unnecessary) but thankfully that dissipates quickly.

If 3D is one of modern cinema’s aggravating realities then this is the way it ought to be used. For around half an hour, the format contributes to the genuine awe you feel when balancing between the towers. Zemeckis has set a new benchmark in three-dimensional movie-making. Upping the ante? That’ll be a tall order.

The Walk - Charlotte Le Bon & Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): TriStar Pictures

Everest (2015)

★★★★

Everest PosterDirector: Baltasar Kormákur

Release Date: September 18th, 2015 (UK); September 25th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson

“One in four died.” That’s the first thing we see on screen, a solitary line in a block of informative dialogue detailing the worrisome history of Everest expeditions. It is our dramatic lever, pulled at the inception just in case we’re not already aware of Mount Everest’s indiscriminate harshness. Throughout, numerous avalanches interrupt our viewing but unlike the false threat exhumed from similar-looking shots in the alpine-set Force Majeure, the danger here is very real.

William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (which may or may not be based on John Krakauer’s Into Thin Airdraw your own conclusions) sheds light and dark on the late-90s mountaineering disaster involving rival trekking companies. Going in bereft of any knowledge probably isn’t much of an advantage; there is a moment at around the forty minute mark that essentially earmarks the film’s ending. It is one of those disaster movie clichés — Titanic’s “You jump, I jump”; any conversation between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon — that acts as a sentimental forewarning.

Admirably, it is the only instance of pure sentimentality in a film more concerned with truth. Everest is cold, at times freezing, but authentic and gripping and no less emotionally involving as a result. Realising the dangers of a crowded field, opposing expedition leaders Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) — the former is excellent, relaying an exhausting and exhaustive performance — opt to team up during a simple scene bound by numerous layers: it shows two experienced climbers anxiously bowing at the mercy of the mountain, but does so in a manner that provides one of the film’s only junctures of light relief.

Fischer asks who will lead when they near the summit, and both men laugh. There is clarity in his words, an assertion that the need to achieve will always usurp the right to survive. Or, if you like, it’s just a rare chance to giggle. Baltasar Kormákur hones in on the competition between colleagues, a smart move that affords these men and women who are otherwise embroiled in an unrelatable escapade a degree of accessibility.

Invoked from the get-go, this competitive edge mirrors a layer of unsettled snow poised to subside at any moment. At the beginning the banter is weightless — it’s there, but the sly digs between Josh Brolin’s Texas-bred Beck Weathers and the aforementioned journalist John Krakauer carry an ominous undercurrent. The film’s atmosphere is driven by poorly disguised trepidation, and you just know something has to give. “There is competition between every person on this mountain,” says the hippie-esque Fischer, and it is palpable. But any interplay between the climbers is superfluous and Fischer acknowledges this shortly thereafter, declaring the mountain will inevitably have the last word.

In a sense Everest is about the pull of an unavoidable thrill. “Why?” asks Krakauer as he documents the climbers’ journey. “Because it’s there,” is the comically-inclined universal reply, but it is also the best reply the mountaineers can muster. Nobody really has a solid answer — postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) talks about his desire to be the everyman who conquered the monster and achieved the impossible. We’re left to ponder whether the reward eclipses the risk, a contemplation that becomes increasingly one-sided the more Hall’s pregnant wife (a game Keira Knightley) appears. Various other members of the group give their reasons: Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) references her need to complete the Seven Summits, having already commandeered the other six.

But each response to Krakauer is admonished with persiflage. It is as if the alpinists know the risk is too great, and they’ve simply given in to the thrill. An unfortunate offshoot of the film’s competition element is a spot about the completion of a celebratory magazine article. Emily Watson, who graciously adds oomph to her fairly thankless role as a glorified receptionist (the actors are very good en masse in generally underfed roles), is stressed about her company receiving a bad review in the midst of the encumbering drama, a whim that feels tonally fake.

Death is an inevitability and when it occurs it is visceral in a non-violent way. Shades of grey don’t exist; the landscape yields either white tundras or black crevasses, and as such when people pass they do so bluntly. Analysing the effectiveness of a death scene in this instance feels egregious and unnecessary, particularly given the victims are real people, but Kormákur does handle said moments with candour and, crucially, without mawkishness. Mass amounts of clothing and equipment make it difficult to differentiate between those on screen, reinforcing the notion that on Everest individuals are merely pawns, merely statistics.

Kormákur’s direction is adroit initially, and it gets better as things get worse. We often see the misty, black peak looming over base camp like a plague. Oxygen masks quickly resemble gas masks. Each second the climbers spend plodding up slopes represents an ounce of life extracted from their bodies. This dangerous aura is complemented by Salvatore Totino’s visual flair — the snow-covered ridges could easily pass for one of The Two Towers’ awe-inspiring New Zealand shots.

Enhanced by booming screening room speakers (Everest is definitely a cinema movie), the sound design frequently jabs at your solar plexus. You instinctively breathe a little more vociferously when things start to go wrong and the outing’s audio power does nothing to ease the tension. There is one tranquil shot that is particularly wonderful; at twilight, camped in the eye of the storm, the camera pans calmly around Hall and co. as they gaze longingly at their lofty goal.

Everest stays true to its subjects in a way that is both compelling and respectful, even if some individuals don’t receive the attention they likely should due to the constraints posed by an excessively large cast. By the end, as the credits paid tribute to many of those involved, I found myself in a morose state of sadness, agitation and admiration. For a ‘big disaster movie’, that’s pretty good going.

Everest

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures