Of the two 3D spectacles which have recently bowed in theaters–both initially given exclusive runs in 3D theaters–I may be alone in saying Everest is the superior film; The Walk has the benefit of better reviews, though it has oddly proven less lucrative at the box-office.
Given the great success of the documentary Man on Wire seven years ago, some have claimed that this is a rather superfluous film, and on some level that may be true, but in its own right, it’s a solid, light-hearted entertainment, and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s French accent passes muster–words I feared I would never type.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it tells of one Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), a French street performer and aspiring wire-walker who becomes obsessed with the Twin Towers of the brand-new World Trade Center (the story takes place in 1973-74), and plans to string a wire between them and walk across, 1,350 feet above the ground.
No mean feat, but Petit is not easily deterred, and gradually assembles a crew of “accomplices”: a fellow street performer, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who becomes his girlfriend; a photographer, Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony); a math teacher (who’s terrified of heights), Jeff (César Domboy); a businessman who works in the WTC and admires Petit’s work, Barry (Steve Valentine); a French-speaking electronics dealer, Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale); and a pair of Jean-Pierre’s acquaintances, Albert (Ben Schwartz) and David (Benedict Samuel).
The film, narrated by Petit from the torch of the Statue of Liberty, covers his early years, studying wire-walking with veteran Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the assembly of his accomplices, his initial attention-grabbing walk between the towers of Notre Dame, the preparations for the walk (which require a great deal of subterfuge), and finally the walk itself, on August 7, 1974.
The raison d’être of the film are the high-wire sequences, rendered in vertiginous 3D, accomplished through some very impressive special effects. The climactic walk is of course the film’s centerpiece, but the dizzying height and the eerie serenity Petit experiences on the wire are both established throughout. Certainly if the tragedy of Everest can still convey the thrill of mountaineering, the triumph of The Walk makes wire-walking look damned appealing. I know I could never come close to mastering it, but more power to those who can.
A fairly breezy comic tone, redolent of Zemeckis in his prime, pervades the film, reinforced by Alan Silvestri’s bright score. It’s weird to call a film that at times hearkens to the cinema of the 90s as “old-fashioned”, but there’s a definite tinge of that era’s brand of neo-sentimentality on display here, and on a purely nostalgic level, I appreciated it. Zemeckis, after several years trying to make motion-capture animation viable, returned to live-action filmmaking with Flight, a decent drama ultimately hampered by its script. This, to me, is the better film and more reflective of Zemeckis’ talents.
Zemeckis also co-wrote the script, with Christopher Browne (based on Petit’s book), and while there are some questionable touches in the name of dramatization (a weird bit with a seagull, a few close calls on the road to the walk), on the whole it’s a solidly workable framework for the high-wire wizardry. The narration is handled well (it adds to the film’s often playful tone), and at the end it even provides a surprisingly subdued and touching conclusion…but I’ll get to that later.
Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography never quite outdoes the early sequence where Petit rides through Paris, mostly in black-and-white (with a few choice details in color), especially since the most impressive scenes are more the achievement of the effects team, but it’s a good-looking film regardless, with production and costume design that captures the era without fuss.
Going into the film, I had feared that Gordon-Levitt, an actor I generally like, would be burdened by his accent and sink into caricature. That’s hardly the case; while his accent never sounds completely natural, it does not obscure how well he portrays Petit’s passion and arrogance. Petit as depicted here is not always especially likable, but Gordon-Levitt never overplays his hand in this regard either. It’s ultimately an engaging and charming performance that proves to be the soul of the film.
No one else in the cast has nearly as good a role, though Le Bon brings some welcome nuance to Annie; we can see her growing realization that she and Philippe will part ways sooner rather than later, and a kind of romantic sadness–a bittersweetness–accompanies her presence. Kingsley has essentially a glorified cameo, but he inhabits the role without overplaying it, and better that than he make more films like The Love Guru.
The other members of the cast are mostly perfectly adequate (though I found Samuel to be quite annoying), but none really stand out–though Valentine has an intriguingly offbeat premise, and I couldn’t help but wonder if his facial hair was supposed to look so fake. Because it looked very fake indeed.
But what will stick with me most is that ending. So many historical films end with a lengthy coda, stock footage, what have you–but not this one. Here, Petit tells us that he was given a pass to visit the WTC’s observation deck whenever he wished. He notes that most such passes have an expiration date, but the official who issued the pass scratched out the date and wrote, “Forever”. At this, he grows somber, and the camera pans over to the Twin Towers, reflecting the sunset, as the film fades out.
And that’s that. A tragic fact the film had to acknowledge, handled with a word, a glint of light, and a fade to black. Not many films can claim so graceful an ending.