Sunday, 1 November 2015

High-Wire Acts

“The Walk”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perched on a wire more than 400 m above the ground, in "The Walk"

For the acrophobic, The Walk will prove to be more nightmarish than director Robert Zemeckis’s earlier film Flight, starring Denzel Washington, was for those afraid of flying. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit, who, while perched on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, narrates his daring plot – an entirely true story – to suspend a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and walk across it, over 400 metres above the ground.

Zemeckis, cinematic trickster that he is, wastes no opportunity for 3-D visual stunts in filming Petit’s charmingly French origin story, nor in his preliminary visits to the towers, still under construction, nor in the actual walk between them. We take Petit’s point of view, walking to a rooftop a few dozen metres away with a palpable void beneath; we take the crowd’s point of view from the street, surveying the ominous gap between themselves and the wire walker; we see him from above; we see him from below; we plunge down to the street and swoop back up the side of one tower; we move along the wire with him, praying for no lapses in his concentration nor in the load-bearing support of the wires. Petit’s stunt in 1974 took place over about 45 minutes, and though Zemeckis has trimmed this down somewhat, it’s still an awfully long time to be holding your breath.

The Walk, in the current vein of films such as Argo and Captain Phillips, is a real-life thriller and a sentimental elegy to both an epochal heroism and a class of hero, of which we feel our own time is in direly short supply. Petit is a man possessed, with a vision of such enormous force, it bowls over all those nearest to him, including his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and tutor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). His vision is of what he calls “an artistic coup,” and he explicitly tells his collaborators, whom he picks up in various places and calls his “accomplices,” that his goal is one of supreme beauty. Together, after months of scouting the construction sites of the towers and gaining the services of someone on the inside (an insurer, played by Steve Valentine), they hatch an elaborate plan to suspend the wire under the cover of darkness - rather like Petit did in an earlier stunt between the bell towers of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris - so that by the time the dawn comes around, Petit can be floating above Manhattan for all its unaware inhabitants to see. Zemeckis’s film is one of a daring and suspenseful caper, and Petit’s team inevitably hits a few snags, but, as the sun rises over the Atlantic and the New Yorkers emerge from their homes, he steps out above the chasm and proceeds to enthrall his spectators.

The emotional core of The Walk, besides Petit’s immense triumph at accomplishing his great coup, is a tribute to the lost towers. Zemeckis keeps them in the foreground of our awareness throughout, highlighting the aesthetic achievement he finds them to be, and he closes his film with a moving elegiac shot of them, accentuated in the sunlight on the Manhattan skyline.

The problem with Zemeckis’s movie is that, in his efforts to depict Petit’s feat and skilfully dramatise the pressures and tensions that attend the months of planning leading up to it, he falls short of the implicit goal he sets himself, which is to evoke the beauty towards which Petit so ardently strives. His CGI wizardry is impressive, and surely it required much skill and effort to achieve all the effects so expertly laid across the screen, but it lacks the singular vision, the obsession, the profound distinction of beauty. Petit’s momentous act, when finally rendered by Zemeckis, is exhilarating but not magnificent, astounding but not transcendent. Our attention is drawn to Zemeckis’s technical achievement rather than Petit’s artistic one. This, of course, doesn’t constitute a complaint so much as a disappointment. After all, we’re lucky not to be getting something closer akin to Zemeckis’s earlier works such as the cloying and tendentious Forrest Gump, and The Walk is often thrilling and engrossing. But when Philippe Petit glided through the sky with consummate grace and enchantment, The Walk plummets quite quickly from the high-wire of cinematic art and imagination.

The Walk is currently playing in theatres.

The Walk is directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Christopher Browne and Zemeckis, based on “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit; music by Alan Silvestri; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Running time: 123 minutes. 2015.

STARRING: Joseph Gordon-LevittCharlotte Le BonBen Kingsley

Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries Charlotte Le Bon across a schoolyard in Paris

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