Saturday, October 17, 2015

"The Walk"

 5 / 5 

The twin towers of the World Trade Center appear within the first seconds of Robert Zemeckis's film The Walk, and when they do, there is reason to be anxious and suspicious.

They look phony. They look like the digital constructs they are. And when Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears in the same frame with them, speaking in a jarring, distracting French accent, everything seems like it's going to go wrong with The Walk.

Then, like a high-wire artist whose first step seems tentative and dangerously wrong, The Walk recovers, and as those towers appear over and over, we become used to seeing them on the screen again -- we adjust to a different reality. Then The Walk does something truly extraordinary:

It shows us a man so exuberant, so confident, so filled with an infectious happiness that he makes us recall what we were like (or, at least, what we imagine we were like) before Sept. 11, 2001, before the towers fell down and we lost our joy.  Of course, we didn't realize the towers were an embodiment of joy, which The Walk tells us they most certainly were; the only way we can know it is by looking back.  So, The Walk returns us to a time when they stood -- when, indeed, they were new -- and does it with such a heightened, almost dreamlike, sense of reality, that seeing the towers actually makes us smile.

The Walk is the story of Philippe Petit, who seems to have been born an artist, much to the chagrin of his parents, and an over-confident showman, much to the chagrin of his mentor, a Czech circus owner named Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley).  In a story seemingly designed for Hollywood, Petit sneaks into the circus as a boy, sees the high-wire act, and is smitten.  He is sure he is meant to walk on a wire, and Petit is the kind of person who won't let go of an idea he is sure of.

The biggest idea he has comes when he sees a magazine article about the then-under-construction World Trade Center in New York City, and to him it is both simple and obvious: The 140-foot space between the two buildings is a space he needs to hang his wire and walk.

Why?  The Walk comes closer than any mainstream movie I've seen to answering the question of what motivates art, and to Petit his high-wire walking is most certainly art.  It is, in a line echoed several times throughout the movie, "something beautiful."

It's beautiful in spite of, or maybe thanks to, its flaws.  Although its opening hour is entirely engaging and efficiently told (and after a few minutes, Gordon-Levitt's French accent becomes less grating) the movie walks its own fine line between intriguing and cloying.

After that opening, The Walk becomes a giddy caper, as Petit recruits friends and strangers to help him in his quest. They find ingenious ways to sneak into the towers and make their plans.  Petit's girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) remains steadfastly supportive throughout, and in its characterizations of everyone except Petit The Walk is about as rich and complex as, say, Titanic.  Some of the dialogue is silly, the lack of doubt for Petit's endeavors rather astonishing.  Sure, it's lighthearted fare, and it's consistently entertaining.

But much as Titanic found its surest footing -- and its heart -- in the sinking, what The Walk really cares about is, well, the walk.  Those last 20 minutes may be driven by the visuals, but there's something more, something that goes a lot deeper.

Through all of its seeming simplicity, The Walk opens a sincere and passionate argument that Petit's daring adventure -- which is also depicted in the straightforward but also stellar Man on Wire -- transcends mere stunt: It is a grand ambition undertaken with a passion and heartfelt earnestness that feels missing from our revenue-hungry culture.  Petit does what he does because he thinks he can and should.  He stands to achieve no monetary gain, he doesn't even expect to be well-liked for it.  It's just something he has to do.

Zemeckis's films are often technical marvels that lack a certain emotional spark -- let it be known I'm one of those who thinks Forrest Gump is a visual wonder that has no soul, and the director's experimentation with motion-capture animated films have been depressing and grim.  And yet, I left The Walk unexpectedly moved, feeling that I just watched, well, something beautiful.

That long and spectacularly created wire-walking sequence is exquisite.  Despite myself, and watching the film in good old-fashioned 2-D, my palms started sweating; The Walk had me utterly absorbed.  The outcome of the walk is never in doubt (after all, that's Gordon-Levitt as Petit narrating the story in retrospect), but the point isn't to generate that sort of dramatic tension: It's to generate feeling and awe, and that is something, even in spite of its wall-to-wall use of digital trickery, The Walk most certainly does.

The final shot, which echoes the first, is accompanied by a line of dialogue so wistful and pitch-perfect that The Walk, no matter what the initial hesitation, becomes a remarkable remembrance of a time, place and feeling that we might never be able to experience again.  There is loss at the core of The Walk, but not a mournful, plaintive loss, rather a romantic and lovely one, a hopeful reminder to look back at the past and remember joy, that we might someday know it again.

Viewed Oct. 17, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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