Tuesday, October 06, 2015

High Wire Act

This past weekend, I went to see the new movie The Walk. It tells the true story of Philippe Petit, who in 1974 walked on a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

If this sounds familiar to you (besides having seen one of the ubiquitous commercials), it may be that you've seen the documentary Man on Wire (or that you recall my review of it). Reportedly, writer-director Robert Zemeckis had been circling this project for years, planning to make it before the documentary came along -- and not letting its creation deter him even after it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. As a result, we get to see two different takes on the same story.

Though Man on Wire had already featured some recreations cast with actors, it had understandably not recreated the "main event" itself. That's what The Walk had going for it from the beginning, and it upped the ante through the use of 3D. I'm not usually one to go in on 3D movies, but there was clearly a reason for it here. Indeed, the idea of seeing a 3D wire walk 110 stories high (a sequence which last 17 minutes in the completed film) is so grand in concept that it risks making the rest of the movie leading up to it dull.

The script is actually well paced and includes plenty of other great scenes. After about 45 minutes, it becomes of sort of "heist film" as the characters plan their covert "coup" on the towers -- and I love me a good heist film. Yet much of the movie does feel a touch dull, and that's because of comparison to Man on Wire. You might not imagine a modest documentary could outshine a multi-million dollar movie, but right up until the hero reaches the World Trade Center roof on that fateful night, it absolutely does.

The reason for that is that The Walk runs pretty shallow on emotion. The only character who really pops is Philippe Petit, in large part due to a great performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. You see the character's mad devotion to his dream, though you never really see why any other character wants to help him achieve it. In sharp contrast, in the documentary Man on Wire, many of the interview subjects became overwhelmed with emotion just in talking about events 30 years old. You got a real sense of how this changed their lives forever, and I myself was moved by it. Unfortunately, The Walk doesn't really capture any of this.

All that said, the big disappointment of Man on Wire is that there are very few photos of Petit's actual walk. I mean, I know it was 1974, and I'm not expecting GoPro footage from a helmet cam -- but the few people in a position to actually photograph the walk (as The Walk shows) fled quickly to avoid capture by the police. So to me, the documentary really built my expectations for something wonderful that it then failed to deliver.

Now we have The Walk for that. It quite literally reaches dizzying heights for 3D movies. Different moments in the titular sequence made me feel a hollow space in my chest, made me grip my armrests, and made my eyes bug open. Even more impressively, the movie didn't just make you experience the height as you or I would surely feel it, but as Philippe Petit himself might have felt it. The walk sequence itself actually begins with a truly serene and tranquil moment, and as the sequence went on, I found myself increasingly relaxing into it and feeling none of the twinges of vertigo I'd felt early on.

As a result, though Man on Wire and The Walk both tell the same story, I feel like they're really companion pieces to each other, each one presenting about half the story in a really effective way. The Walk certainly thrilled me, but it also didn't move me as Man on Wire often did. I give it a B-. Basically, my recommendation is: see it in the theater, in 3D, or don't see it at all.

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