Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Foolhardy: The Walk

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, in The Walk.

While Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was suspended on a high wire strung across the Twin Towers, a girl behind me at my screening of The Walk whispered "I hate this movie." I know how she feels, and not because the film is bad. It's not. What it is is manipulative, in the way only Robert Zemeckis can be – and when he tilts his camera from Philippe's feet down to the bustling Manhattan streets thousands of feet below for the twentieth time, I stopped being engaged and started being nauseous. Do not – I repeat, do not – go to see The Walk if you get vertigo, or if you ate shellfish beforehand, or if you're averse to 3D. (I met two of those criteria.)

Even if you don’t have a stomach of steel, The Walk is likely to please you. Most of the film is spent building up to Petit’s fateful stunt, and the tone of the first two acts is whimsical and charming. Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as a consummate showman and an obsessive dreamer with a dogged, single-minded sense of purpose. This lends the film a propulsive energy despite its long runtime, and guided by Zemeckis’ deft hand at pacing – setpieces in his films can sometimes seem like dominoes that he labouriously sets up before knocking down in sequence – The Walk feels like a satisfying, old-fashioned yarn about a remarkable man with an impossible dream. Plus, the actual walk itself, which occupies nearly the last third of the film, is a literally breathtaking exhibition of Zemeckis’ skill at creating tension through visuals, editing, and music.

But for all its superficial charm, The Walk is, as I’ve mentioned, transparently manipulative in how it approaches its story. This isn’t a big revelation, I know – it’s often been said that cinema is manipulation – but Zemeckis in particular has made a career of using brute force to coerce his audience into feeling what he wants them to feel, from the misanthropic underpinnings of Forrest Gump to the patently unrealistic depiction of alcoholism in Flight. It’s noticeable even in his use of technology, like the loathsome Beowulf or his totally unnecessary adaptation of A Christmas Carol, in which he practically dares his audience to engage with his unsettling, uncanny-valley visuals. The Walk is no different in that it knows its subject has been adequately explored already on film (in this case, by the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire), and self-righteously justifies its existence through sheer force of will. Gordon-Levitt’s overtly whimsical narration and the checklist-style character development (Plucky hero? Check. Love interest? Check. Wise old mentor? Check. Token supporting characters? Check) rang false for me because it felt like the film was trying to disguise its lack of originality or probing insight. That's why the only part of The Walk that really worked for me was the walk itself, because its highly dramatized, visually stunning realization felt like the only honest and original thing that Zemeckis could add to this story. (That I couldn't really handle the walk due to extreme feelings of vertigo is another matter).

I had to keep reminding myself that I've seen Man on Wire, and I know how this ends. And yet Zemeckis, in true Back To The Future fashion, streeeeetches out each minor hiccup in Philippe's plan (which he calls his “coup”) into sequences of literally unbearable tension. There's a point at which your audience will no longer come with you on your journey if you don't allow them a chance to breathe – and the little sips of air that Zemeckis offers as relief (like cutting to the crowds watching at ground level) were not enough to keep me from disconnecting. I knew Philippe wasn't going to fall, I knew it, but every single time he faltered or swayed or assumed some foolhardy new stance on the wire was a year taken from my life. I suppose that's more my failing as a moviegoer than Zemeckis' as a filmmaker, but I simply couldn't stomach it. Not that the IMAX 3D helped, either. Those who enjoy the film will probably tell you that it's not to be seen any other way; that the 3D adds true depth to the field of view and a sense of realism to the insane height of Philippe's walk. I won't disagree – I’ve rarely seen 3D used to greater effect. Unfortunately the effect was to make me deeply, wholly, primally uncomfortable, and not in a “fun squirmy horror movie” way, but in the “activation of fight-or-flight instinct” kind of way. I couldn't punch the screen and I wasn't willing to give in and leave my seat, so I sat there sweating and cringing, waiting for it to be over. Is that why you go to the movies? Then I guess The Walk is for you!

Charlotte Le Bon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk.

Afterwards I overheard that the girl who was just as sickened by the film's stomach-turning camerawork as I was turned out to be French herself, when her friend asked her what she thought of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's accent. I agreed with her answer wholeheartedly: good, she thought, but she was baffled why the ragtag group of French "accomplices" that Philippe brings to New York felt they had to constantly speak English. "We will sound like New Yorkers," he pronounces, without explaining why that would be necessary. You'd think his excuse would be that they need good English to con their way to the rooftops of each tower, but when they get there, one of their American accomplices does all the talking. And when they finally do make it to the roof, they keep speaking English. I may have stopped hearing Gordon-Levitt's Clouseau-esque accent halfway through, so points to him, but that particular bit of general-Hollywood-audience pandering rubbed me wrong throughout.

In fact, all points to Gordon-Levitt. He's one of the only things that make The Walk enjoyable (not counting a small, typically-terrific supporting role by Ben Kingsley as the aforementioned wirewalking mentor, Papa Rudi). I truly admire JGL's moxie. He has tackled everything from childhood stardom to serious dramatic roles to comedy to musical theatre to television production and everything in between, and done all of it with the same boyish enthusiasm; he’s a talented man driven to find his true calling and willing to try absolutely everything in the meantime. I hope one day he'll be regarded as one of our great screen actors, and we'll look on these early roles as the promising work of a young talent approaching his prime – but as ferociously earnest as he is, he couldn't fully sell me on Philippe. His narration, delivered into the camera from a green-screen perch atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty, was well done but overly sentimental, and the fact that he wasn’t given much to chew on with his character (by all accounts, the real Petit was an unrepentant megalomaniac, which makes for a fascinating character arc to his personal story that The Walk doesn’t have the time or desire to include) meant he could only deliver so much. I lay that failing at Zemeckis’ feet: the saccharine tale of Petit’s upbringing and the formation of his dream to walk between the World Trade Center towers feels like it belongs in a totally different movie from the one that occupies the last third of the film, in which Gordon-Levitt’s superb physical work is allowed to shine.

I won’t comment on the film’s depiction of the World Trade Center towers in the wake of 9/11, because the film doesn’t either, except to create them in such exacting and believable detail that, for as long as the reels were running, it felt to me like they were still standing. I’d rather focus on the marginalized supporting cast, or the excessive runtime, or the knock-kneed script, or the aggressive direction. These were the annoyances that were given two hours to buzz around my head before the final, incredible, death-defying sequence swatted them all away – and no matter how much I hated sitting through it, I can’t deny the craft, precision, and power that drives those scenes in which Petit fulfills his coup. The best things about The Walk are the things that made me want to avoid it at all costs – so I guess you can decide for yourself if that’s a recommendation or not.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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