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

Man on Wire (2008)

★★★★★

Director: James Marsh

Release Date: August 1st, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Biography

Everybody hates the dentist. Everybody except Philippe Petit.

The Twin Towers were a symbol of innovation. A duo of iron giants, they stood over New York reminding the world that anything was, is, possible. Writing about the pair of incredible architectural feats in the past tense is probably something, even 12 years on, nobody will ever get used to.

It is this melting pot of romanticism and tragedy that surrounds the Twin Towers which gives Man on Wire an extra layer of emotional weight. But even without that, even minus the tinge of sadness you get upon remembering the towers are no longer around, Man on Wire is an absolute triumph.

The documentary recounts a story that you probably wouldn’t believe if it were a narrative film. Philippe Petit is an ordinary man, a French high-wire walker whose aspirations exceed the ordinary and go up. A long way up. Supported by his congregation of close friends, he strives to reach impossible heights and to walk on top of the world. It’s 1968, and Petit finds himself flicking through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room when he comes across an article promoting the impending construction of the world’s tallest buildings: the World Trade Center. Petit rushes out of the dentist. He doesn’t need to get his teeth checked. He’s going to walk between the Twin Towers.

Director James Marsh lets the story of Petit and his cohorts (because it is their story too) play out both through real-time interviews with the participants and by way of caper-like reconstructions of the day. The heist-esque portrayal of Petit’s attempts to the reach the top of one of the towers generates mischief and even comedy at times, particularly when Petit himself is describing his game of hide-and-seek with the guards in the building. Petit and co are, by all accounts, going against the law as the sneak their way into the buildings as maintenance men, and the group refrain from shying away from this as they retell their tale.

The lightheartedness achieved by Marsh is admirable (though the thought of walking across a wire suspended at 1,368ft does generate a nervous chuckle), however the film truly hits its stride through the group’s emotional, passionate narration of their incredible journey. Philippe and his friends, girlfriend, and colleagues all seem invested in their story — how can they not be? As the preparations develop, Petit’s metaphorical dream builds. Ironically, the main barrier in his way is the lack of physical existence of his goal: the towers do not reach completion until 1973, five years after the Frenchman darted out a dentist’s waiting room with dazzled eyes. Throughout the film, the purpose of the towers (which obviously lies in commerce, work, and the proverbial “American Dream”) becomes somewhat twisted towards Philippe’s ambition. Just for a moment the construction of the towers seems solely to be for one man to ascend and walk across them: “Of course, that’s why the towers are there… for Philippe.”

The group’s preparations take them to Sydney, Australia and the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where a suspended Philippe walks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Cathedral respectively. The second traverse sees Philippe stride above an ongoing mass, almost in a God-like manner. The underlying connotations of dreams and reaching the clouds play out as the documentary progresses, further reinforcing just how overly-ambitious Petit is. His counterparts react differently as they recount their roles in the preparations and the event itself; we see genuine outbursts of emotion ranging from tears to laughter. At times there is a frustrated sense of animosity between the members of Petit’s troupe, adding to the intense drama — is this one man’s dream for himself, or a group’s dream for one man?

As the film nears its nail-biting conclusion — and nail-biting might just be an understatement — it hits the audience with an unexpected burst of poignancy. We want Philippe to succeed, to fulfil his dream, to fulfil the dream those close to him share vicariously. Marsh intersperses the drama with astonishing ‘home-video’ footage taken of Philippe as his air-walking escapades reach spine-tingling heights (the Frenchman even draws images of his previous wire-walks on a wall of one of the towers, as if to remind himself that they are part of a natural progression). The Twin Towers are displayed often and with purpose, reminding us about the sheer scale of Philippe’s dream.

And then Philippe Petit dances at the top of the world. From below he is as small as his name proposes and even smaller still as the remarkable man obtains a pair of gigantic steel legs. The moment is extraordinary; it is profound. But it is also effortless. The tension relieves and the documentary captures a truly emotionally evocative moment. This is the real Philippe, in complete isolation, suspended above a busy world. He elates, “I must be a castaway on a desert island of my dreams”.

Man on Wire delivers bundles of heart and soul, provided by way of James Marsh’s wonderfully diced concoction of Philippe and company telling their story, backed up by grainy, very real home-video footage and jaunty re-enactments. The title of film suggests simplicity, and in a sense the visual of Philippe Petit lying in mid-air between the Twin Towers is just that, but his journey to the sky is something quite extraordinary.