I can't imagine that there is anything more terrifying for a filmmaker than to create a "true" story! But Robert Zemeckis is always up for the challenge.
The director of "Forrest Gump" (1994), "Cast Away" (2000) and "Flight" (2012) has selected the wonderful story of Philippe Petit, a wire-walker who traversed between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. This act was well chronicled in the widely acclaimed documentary "Man on Wire" (2008). Now Zemeckis has turned this saga into a feature-length film, revealing Philippe's background, and his many secrets.
Philippe is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose French is almost as perfect as his English. Philippe is headstrong, beginning as a child, sneaking into a circus to witness the high-wire act. When older, he is caught one night trying out the wire of a famous circus act known as the Omankowsky Troupe led by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). He throws Philippe out of the tent --- and his own father throws him out of his house. So he migrates to Paris, where he meets Annie (Charllote Le Bon) and the two become a couple.
Papa Rudy tutors Philippe, for a price, in the art of the high wire, with Philippe being a very willing and able student. But Philippe is obsessed --- obsessed with the Twin Towers in New York City, which were just being built.
He and Annie travel to NYC, where he makes the final decision that he must walk between the two buildings. After much discussion, wrangling and strife, the date of August 6th is decided upon for Philippe's "walk".
I'm not sure if I have ever been as nervous/anxious about a film in which I knew the outcome. Seriously, this walk has been well-publicized. But Zemeckis' spin on the story is terrifying --- electrifying ---- and I'm not even afraid of heights.
Poor David --- I thought he would have a heart attack, especially when Philippe saunters out onto a steel girder 110 stories above the ground when he is planning his feat. Good Lord, I almost had one. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski is beyond fabulous, and the visual effects by Kevin Baillie and production design by Naomi Shohan are amazing.
It's a tad unnerving to see the towers recreated, even if most of it was accomplished digitally. The process took a team of 15 people three months to complete. The footage is so real it's impossible to decipher that they're not the original iconic structures which graced NYC's spectacular skyline. It's also incredibly sad ---
Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal --- accent, et al. He actually learned to walk on the wire form Petit himself. He also garnered a lot more from those wire-walking sessions --- like all of Petit's mannerisms and quirks, which is why this performance is so believable and impressive.
Kingsley's role is paramount to the success of "The Walk". Papa Rudy is a truly fascinating real-life character, and Kingsley was determined to get him right. He enacts tough love with Philippe, but admires his passion for this crazy dream of his. Kingsley is as formidable as Papa Rudy.
Based on Petit's book "To Reach the Clouds", and a screenplay by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, "The Walk" is a visually stunning marvel, especially in IMAX/3-D. When Gordon-Levitt makes that long-awaited dream-come-true at daybreak, we believe that he is truly over 1300 feet in the air. It's a feeling of panic, fear, exhilaration and joy all rolled into one filmmaking history moment.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
"Gut-wrenching" is an overused term when critiquing movies, but in the case of "The Walk", it's completely apropos. In capturing the high-wire drama of Frenchman Philippe Petit's historic cable walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, director Robert Zemeckis spares no detail, and obviously doesn't give a damn about his viewers' upset tummies. Mine is still churning (repeating to myself "it's only a movie" didn't work), and knowing the outcome of the event didn't provide any relief, either.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a career defining role, "The Walk" is agonizingly suspenseful, especially if you're at all squeamish about heights. Jeanne is a fearless roller coaster rider, but even she was in distress, grabbing my arm, as necessary. I thought seriously of looking away from our IMAX/3-D screen, but, in the interest of not being a total wimp, I did not.
One of Petit's assistants in his "coup", as they called it, is Jean-Francois, a.k.a. Jeff (César Domboy), who jokes about becoming unraveled merely standing on a stepstool. Not a good thing when you're on the roof of a 110-story building. In fact, the preparation for the walk, which includes illegally hauling all their equipment up to the top, provides as much of the movie's tension as the walk itself.
When a nighttime security guard is a threat to reveal their plan, Philippe and Jeff hide under a canvas, astride a narrow steel beam suspended hundreds of feet in the air in an empty elevator shaft. Zemeckis' attention to detail has Philippe making a hole in the canvas with his ballpoint pen to gauge the guard's whereabouts. Earlier, while contemplating his feat, Philippe draws a perfectly straight pencil line between the World Trade Center buildings on a newspaper photograph. The entire movie leaves no stone unturned when it comes to fascinating specifics of Petit's lifelong dream.
Gordon-Levitt has engineered a film career based on challenging roles. "The Walk" represents the pinnacle of his achievements to date, not only convincing us of his physical prowess on the high-wire, but speaking fluent French, at times, or English with a polished French accent. JGL's high-wire training consisted of long days with Petit, on what ultimately became a seven-foot-high cable. But Zemeckis' incredible use of technology, along with talented cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ("The Martian", opening Friday, plus "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise), will make you believe he is over 1300 feet above the streets of New York City.
The real Philippe Petit, as seen in the acclaimed 2008 documentary "Man on Wire", stepped and pranced on his cable for over an hour, until he finally gave in to police waiting for him to return to the roof so he could be arrested. His penalty? He was "ordered" to give a free "low-wire" show to kids in Central Park. In "The Walk", JGL provides seat-squirming moviegoers with multiple trips up and down the wire --- seemingly an eternity.
Wolski and Zemeckis pay a quietly stirring tribute to the Twin Towers in their closing shot, featuring a disappearing NYC skyline with a fading light shining on the two buildings. It's a stunning effect, and a fitting conclusion to a remarkable film.
Sir Ben Kingsley plays Papa Rudy, a world-class high-wire walker himself, who becomes Philippe's great friend and mentor. With extreme close-ups of the connections on the wire, stretched tautly between the towers, Philippe is grateful that Papa Rudy suggested using three fasteners instead of the normal two. And so are we.
Charlotte Le Bon ("The Hundred-Foot Journey") plays Annie, Philippe's love interest and inspiration. He dazzles her with a model of his dream that he fashions as they dine in a restaurant, featuring two wine bottles and a string. Considering Philippe's passion, charm and boyish good looks, she never had a chance.
JGL also doubles as the film's narrator, alternately standing and sitting at the torch of the Statue of Liberty with the World Trade Center behind him. For moviegoers unfamiliar with this highly illegal walk, the post-event re-telling by Philippe should reassure them that he comes out of it sans une égratignure (French for "without a scratch"). "Should" is the operative word.
At a minimum, the film is unsettling. Early on, we are teased by what is to follow. Like an effective horror story, we may dread what is ahead of us, yet anticipate it with guarded enthusiasm. "The Walk" is the ultimate vicarious experience.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!