Saturday, January 30, 2016

Welcome to the coup!


Very probably the year's most worthwhile biopic, The Walk is at once a caper film of extraordinary wackiness, an enthralling testament to human awesomeness, and a sensitive tribute to the fallen Twin Towers upon which its story turns.  That it all seems of a piece is nothing short of a miracle—although it can't be denied that, in its most theoretically enrapturing moments, it suffers from a slight (but noticeable) lack of punch.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Christopher Brown and Robert Zemeckis (based on the book by Philippe Petit)
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Philippe Petit), Charlotte Le Bon (Annie), Clement Sibony (Jean-Louis), Cesar Domboy (Jeff), James Badge Dale (J.P.), Ben Schwartz (Albert), Benedict Samuel (David), Steve Valentine (Barry), and Ben Kingsley (Papa Rudy)

Spoiler alert: N/A

More than anything else—and, accounting for rounding errors, there is nothing else when it comes to Robert Zemeckis' fictionalized retelling of the adventures of Philippe Petit—The Walk is an enormously genial thing, and that counts for a lot.  Dedicated principally to gentle uplift, it takes a turn into obligatory 9/11 mawkishness only in its very last moments, by which point it's earned the right to do just about whatever it wants.  But right up till those last moments, it's mostly a ludicrously stylized frivolity, and it deviates from this pursuit almost exclusively in its climax, where it shades quickly but decisively into justified awe.  If there are one or two or three exceptions, coming up only when the story darkens into an examination of the more dangerous aspects of Petit's objective insanity, these excursions are fortunately brief, the first (Petit's sweaty, obsessive-compulsive hammering of nails in the night) being pretty much an abject failure—which is all the more surprising since this scene happened pretty much exactly as The Walk depicts it, and in fact it is with precisely this story that The Walk's rawer documentary predecessor Man on Wire begins.

And that's the big fucking objection, ain't it?

The Walk, of course, is the true story of the French tightrope walker who came to New York City in 1974, enlisted a crew of accomplices, broke into the newly-built World Trade Center, strung a cable across the gulf separating the North Tower from its twin 200 feet away, and, finally, danced back and forth across the cable with no safety harness, and no guarantee he wouldn't die, no fewer than eight times.  When it was all over, Petit had become not just a global sensation, but a real American hero.  And James Marsh already told this story to great acclaim, all the way back in 2009.  He even got an Oscar for it.

Let's just spit it out: while Petit himself is a fascinating figure, and his walk across the New York sky is obviously amazing, I've got something like near-zero affection for Marsh's non-fiction picture.  Man on Wire's about as structurally obnoxious as a documentary can get, leaping about time with a genuinely dulling randomness.  But most importantly, it doesn't feature any footage of Petit's actual walk, for the simple reason that none exists.  Now, Zemeckis' picture may have its own issues with this climax—we'll get to them—but that's a glaring omission.  It justifies the new, fictional film immediately and completely, and, happily, it's not even the sole justification The Walk makes for its existence.

The Walk isn't better all across the board, to be sure.  There's a certain gritty verite to Man of Wire's footage of Petit's previous wirewalking feats, and of the New York skyline generally.  "Gritty verite" is something you'll never find in Zemeckis' largely-computerized feature, nor in Darius Wolski's razor-sharp cinematography.  But that's just Life at the Movies in 2015 more than it is any weakness of this particular film, where the slick photography represents a flawless marriage of form and mood.  The Walk remains a good-looking example of 2015-vintage studio filmmaking—a backhanded compliment, maybe, but a compliment nonetheless.

"Ludicrously stylized," too, I said, and I meant it in a rather specific way: The Walk is stylized, and The Walk is extremely ludicrous.  Why, the very first thing you'll notice about it—the very first thing Zemeckis wants you to notice—is the frankly outrageous cartoon accent sported by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whom we first find standing in what initially appears to be a white, heavenly void.  He's prattling in our general direction about dreams (they're good), about death (it's bad), and about every other little theme Zemeckis' film concerns itself with, and there's just no getting around it: it's incredibly silly.  The backdrop eventually resolves into Manhattan; JGL turns out to be standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty (itself being of French manufacture, this is an exceedingly nice little touch, mostly because the film somehow restrains itself from pointing this connection out); and, from Gordon-Levitt's own mouth, we get the canned biography of Philippe Petit—rakish nonconformist, self-taught wirewalker, close-up magician, pretentious panhandler on the streets of Paris.  (It is briefly depicted in black-and-white, then partly in color Pleasantville-style, then totally in color, with no serious emotional rigor inhering to the trick.)

Anyway, Gordon-Levitt's Petit, now firmly established in the realm of myth, narrates throughout, and it's twenty or thirty minutes—hell, maybe 123 minutes, depending on your temperament—before one gets used to his exaggerated Parisien stereotype.  I doubt there's any middle ground on this point, and I further suppose that to witness it is to be either terrifically annoyed by it, or be impossibly charmed.  For my part, I wound up choosing the latter, and I'm not ashamed to admit that it made me giggle throughout the film.  It surely helps that it's actually a rather good impression of Petit specifically, who might well be the closest nature's ever come to reproducing Pepe Le Pew.  But JGL, you know, is an actor, and it's his job to turn in a performance.

What I saw, by the time the credits rolled, was one of the most appealing performances of all 2015.  Gordon-Levitt hits every note the screenplay calls upon him to deliver, and more: he's impish, sometimes even mockable; but mostly his monomania is both infectiously giddy and endearingly obnoxious.  There's even a few moments where he takes Petit's obsession to more upsetting places.  The first, fussing over that box containing all his equipment (he calls it his "coffin"), we've already covered.  But there's another moment, atop the North Tower, shortly after dawn and minutes before Petit intends to begin his walk, where Petit and his accomplice Jeff are confronted with a "mysterious visitor," an office worker from below who could have ended Petit's quest then and there.  The way Gordon-Levitt coils up, a metal bar clenched in his hand—compelling the stranger to retreat back into the enigma from whence he came—is almost terrifying.  (And, according to Petit, this event really happened, too.)  In a just world, The Walk would have been the last push Gordon-Levitt needed to attain escape velocity into full-blown stardom, at last delivering him from his niche as the interesting, entertaining headliner of underperforming curios.  Of course, we don't live in anything like a just world, and The Walk tanked.

Sadly, I helped.

I expect this came as a rude surprise to everybody, given that it's Zemeckis' most artistically successful film since his career-defining masterpiece, Cast Away, and his most calculatedly crowd-pleasing since Forrest Gump.  If 2012's bizarre addiction dramedy Flight proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had returned from his decade-long journey through unlikeable animated features with all his legendary zaniness intact, The Walk is absolutely the sturdier foundation for translating his cartoon sensibility into live-action.  There's little about The Walk—anchored and dominated by its pitch-perfect lead performance—that is not designed to be completely delightful.  Most of it succeeds.

But, just like everybody else, I did miss it in theaters, so take the criticism that's coming under advisement—for there's a very real possibility that the dimensionality and hugeness of the IMAX 3D experience adds so much to the climax that it can't really be severed from the work's intended effect, whereas I only watched it in 2D, on a television in my living room.  But since that's how most folks going forward will be ever be able to watch The Walk, it's worth discussing regardless, because in the film's centerpiece (which is the primary reason it exists), our man Zemeckis (whom I could argue is our most undervalued living filmmaker) makes enough serious mistakes that we can be glad that directing a movie isn't literally like walking a tightrope.

From too many uninspired shot set-ups that flatly level the camera on JGL's face, to a busy cutting scheme that disaggregates the recreation of Petit's reality, to the intrusion of a hideous digital seagull that (honestly) wouldn't have looked like accomplished CGI even if it were floating around in Beowulf—well, the sequence really does have its problems, doesn't it?  Now, there's certainly more about the climax of The Walk that's enjoyable: it is not a bad scene, and it offers thrills (thankfully, no spills!), and in many individual images, it is quite as awesome as it desperately needs to be.  But the overall effect is not the preternatural, panic-inducing experiential cinema of a Gravity.  Something ineffable that should be there just isn't.

If only Emmanuel Lubezki hadn't been in Argentina, shooting Leonardo DiCaprio eating cow guts, he could have been on a soundstage whipping his camera around Joseph Gordon-Levitt walking on a plank.

That's not just glibness talking: a Lubezkian untethered camera would have forced us to physically feel the danger, trapping us within vertiginous long takes of Petit crossing back and forth across his makeshift bridge.  The strange part is that Zemeckis' mocap cartoons helped pioneer this contemporary cinema of attractions.  You'd think that if anybody besides Lubezki and Alfonso Cuaron were ever going to knock this scenario right out of the park, it would be him.  But maybe it's just that the one time JGL needed to shut up, he doesn't—Zemeckis forces him to narrate right the fuck through Petit's triumph, diminishing the film's most essentially cinematic moment with the noise of his flapping, nondiegetic maw.

But!  That's an awful lot of grousing for a scene that I still basically loved: it's only that you expect The Walk to be the perfect version of itself, because Zemeckis has rarely failed to give us the perfect version of all his movies.

This leaves us, finally, with The Walk's turn toward Septemberploitation.  Given that the conspicuous absence of the Towers has defined New York City's skyline since that day back in 2001, there was never any real sense in avoiding the issue.  I'm glad Zemeckis doesn't try—especially in the context of this story, which is as much as a celebration of those two marvels of American engineering as it is a biography of Philippe Petit.  After all, the real gift of Petit's work of art—for the man was above all else an artist—was how it changed our perceptions.  For those of us who came of age after 9/11, the idea might seem practically offensive, but the Towers were kind of despised when they were actually around—and never moreso than when they first went up, derided as "glass-and-metal filing cabinets" by people who didn't appreciate Minoru Yamasaki's brand of stark, cyclopean architecture.  But Petit saw these two pillars of heaven being built right across from another.  He knew instantly that they were meant for him, and in forty-five minutes of daredevil aerialism, he transformed  the Twin Towers into something worth loving for the first time.

For those of us on the other side of 9/11, The Walk is a tribute to that love.  It is not, I suppose, any tribute to all the people who died, the film's dedication notwithstanding—yet the millions of hours and dollars devoted to the Towers' construction are so often lost in the gush of 9/11 sentimentality that I appreciate intensely that one work of art could be devoted to the buildings instead.

We return to Petit at the end.  Still perched atop the Statue of Liberty, the camera pans from the WTC to him, and, as he emphasizes the word "forever," it slowly pans back.  At this point, I fully expected to find the CGI recreation of Manhattan missing its two iconic towers—actually, if I had been in charge, you'd have seen the things on fire.  My girlfriend says this means I have a truly monstrous aesthetic sensibility; but still, I'd have loved The Walk even more if it had taken that extra artistic risk, and just punched every last one of us right in the gut.  Meanwhile, I imagine that for those with more delicate constitutions, and for those who find themselves as touched by brazen manipulation as I often find myself, the tribute The Walk does make—a fade to black that leaves the sunset reflected in the towers' glass as its bittersweet final gesture—remains quite enough to occasion a tear.

Score:  8/10

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