Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: The Walk

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
First things first: yes, James Marsh's transfixing documentary "Man on Wire" is still the best film made about high wire artist Phillipe Petit and, no, it probably wasn't all that necessary for a feature film to be made about him, considering how well that 2008 film covered the story.

That being said, "The Walk" is a good time and the final 30 minutes or so of the picture are completely breathtaking and, if you are afraid of heights, nerve wracking and nauseating, despite the fact that we already know how the story turns out.

For those unaware of Petit's incredible stunt, the French high wire artist strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center shortly after their completion in 1974 and walked for approximately 45 minutes along the wire without a harness or any other means of preventing him from falling hundreds of stories to his death.

The wire walk was an amazing moment of its time, a feat that, at first, seemed completely reckless, but was soon overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of what one human being could accomplish through skill and bravado. In the film, Petit (portrayed well by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) comes off as equally arrogant and charming. He's the type of guy who makes you roll your eyes, even though you know you like him anyway.

We get a brief flashback to Petit's youth, when he watches a high wire artist at a circus and immediately falls in love with the concept. As a cocky young man, he enlists the help of a Czech high wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who attempts to teach him the tricks of the trade, but young Petit doesn't want to hear all of his advice. A few years later and more mature, he calls on Kingsley's sage wire walker for tips and draws together a group of "accomplices," which include a girlfriend, a few fellow Frenchmen and several New Yorkers, to stage the "coup" of his walk between the towers.

So, while it's difficult to compete with the real thing - in other words, the recreation of these events pales a little next to the actual footage of the event captured in "Man on Wire" - Robert Zemeckis's film still manages to turn the "coup" into a stunning cinematic experience.

As I mentioned, the final 30 minutes or so of the film are pretty incredible. At first, the shots of Gordon-Levitt walking along the wire with the city many stories below gave me a bit of vertigo, which is telling as to how effective the sequence has been recreated. But then you get swept in by the gracefulness of the high wire walk and how completely insane/gutsy Petit must have been to pull off such a stunt.

And there's a nice touch in which a character later tells Petit and his crew how New Yorkers had, at first, hated the towers, which they considered a monstrosity looming over the city, but then came to like them after the high wire walker christened them with his act. The film's final shot is of the towers before fading to black that acts as a, thankfully, subtle reminder of what was lost at that very site.

Zemeckis's films have often been about characters with potential who find themselves at the center of something incredible and rise to the occasion. His filmography is filled with such stories - "Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", "Forrest Gump" and "Contact," to name a few. "The Walk" is similar, but in this case it is the character himself who makes that incredible moment come about. And while I still contend that "Man on Wire" is the Phillipe Petit movie, Zemeckis's film is well worth your time.

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