Wednesday, October 14, 2015
The Walk: Race to the Top, But Don't Look Down
Strictly speaking, J.P. is wrong—Philippe has no plans to steal anything, except perhaps a few moments of immortality. But in cinematic terms, J.P. is on the mark. The Walk, in its elemental form, is a crime caper. Its story, which it tells with considerable glee and marginal distinction, is that of a gang of lawbreakers who conspire to evade police detection and carry out a seemingly impossible objective. In this way, it is a successor to classic heist pictures like Rififi and Ocean's Eleven. What distinguishes this one is that, where most capers thrive on the planning of the crime rather than the actual execution, The Walk achieves its power in depicting Philippe's improbable, death-defying triumph. For the majority of its runtime, it's a fun, frothy film: nicely acted, convincingly staged, and thoroughly familiar. Then Philippe steps out on that wire, and this modest, unmemorable movie becomes unforgettable.
Of course, one does not simply rush out onto a 1,362-foot-high wire without undertaking the proper preparation. And The Walk takes great pains to illuminate just how Philippe pulled off his extraordinary achievement, examining both his specific temperament and the feat's overall logistics. We first meet Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a nimble and winning performance) standing in the torch of the Statute of Liberty, a spot Zemeckis returns to throughout the film, where his hero fulfills the role of cheery narrator. We then flash back a few years to Paris, where Philippe's work as a street performer earns him pennies, along with the ire of his father. He also receives scorn from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, on cruise control), a legendary circus leader who eventually becomes Philippe's reluctant, wise mentor. Despite some mishaps, Philippe is undaunted in his quest to become the world's preeminent wire-walker.
So far, so dull. If you ignore Philippe's peculiar skill set, his obsession with his art initially feels somewhat generic. After all, The Walk is about—and stop me if you've heard this one before—a man who has always had a dream. But even if Philippe occasionally comes across as a construct, Gordon-Levitt makes him immensely likable, and Zemeckis stages his early exploits with style and ingenuity. He remains the rare director who can properly capitalize on the potential of 3-D beyond the usual bombastic set pieces. One of the film's conceits is that Philippe is constantly on the lookout for stationary objects where he can hang his wire, and Zemeckis (working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who shot Dark City), frequently has him eyeball a pair of distant trees or poles, holding up a slender piece of coil to estimate the width between them; in these moments, the 3-D holds that coil in the foreground while simultaneously accentuating the objects in the background, brilliantly communicating the spatial workings of Philippe's mind. (Many interior scenes, however, remain too dim on account of the glasses, a problem that similarly plagued the Wolski-shot The Martian.)
But The Walk is less about its characters than about their accomplishments. And in detailing the meticulous planning that predicated Philippe's historic stroll, Zemeckis is scrupulous without ever becoming banal. (For this and many other reasons, The Walk will assuredly be compared to Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary about Petit's self-dubbed "coup".) Whether it's Philippe's stroke-of-luck recruitment of an "inside man" or Jean-Louis' inspired use of a bow and arrow, Zemeckis articulates the magnitude of Philippe's feat through a canny combination of cinematic flair and straight-up reporting. He allows us to become a de-facto member of Philippe's crew, reveling in the group's furtive excitement (they seem to be on the constant brink of police discovery) and trembling with their fear.
Of course, there is also a strain of quiet melancholy percolating through this sequence, the sad recognition that, although we see the fearsome Twin Towers looming before us, we know they can only be remarkably convincing visual effects. Yet the predominant spirit of The Walk is elation, not sorrow. Philippe states repeatedly—to Annie, to us, to anyone—that in order to succeed, he must have absolutely no doubt in himself, to the point that he refuses even to say the word "death". It's a fitting sentiment that encapsulates this movie's confident grandeur, obscuring its minor failings in the process. It is not about death. It is a celebration of life.