Sunday, November 08, 2015

"The Walk": review

I watched "The Walk" with Ligament on Saturday afternoon. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as wire walker Philippe Petit, "The Walk," through the protagonist's fourth-wall-breaking narration, chronicles Petit's dogged, obsessive pursuit of his ultimate dream: to walk on a cable strung between the two towers of the newly minted World Trade Center in Manhattan. The plot is fairly simple: Petit is first inspired, as a child, to learn wire walking (Ben Kingsley plays his irascible-but-lovable Czech mentor, Papa Rudy); he is then inspired to walk the World Trade Center; he next has to form a Franco-American team of "accomplices" to help him set up the highly illegal walk; after that, there's the walk itself which, as you know if you know your history, ends with Petit's arrest.

I found the film generally enjoyable, but Ligament, who likes faster-paced, grittier films (she's a horror aficionado), found the movie slow and somewhat boring. "I liked 'The Martian' better," she said. For myself, I was curious to see whether a movie about French people would actually feature any spoken French. I had already seen the preview trailer, which showed Gordon-Levitt speaking English in an outrageous and stereotypical French accent, so I wasn't optimistic on this score. Instead, what the movie actually does is it has its main characters speak in bursts of French at certain moments, but requires them to speak in English most of the time to fulfill a plot point: Petit tells his "accomplices" that he must practice his English because he intends to go to America to do this grandiose thing.

Gordon-Levitt actually speaks French in real life; I've seen some of his interviews, and I think that, although he sometimes seems a bit slow and hesitant when speaking unscripted French, he handles the language at a higher level of competence than does Bradley Cooper (whose French skills I've critiqued before). In the movie, Gordon-Levitt has to speak French at certain points, and I have to say that his pronunciation was spot-on. He was perfectly comprehensible to me, with no annoying traces of an American accent. Here's the weird thing, though: whenever Gordon-Levitt looked directly at the camera to give Petit's English-language narration, his accent was horrible: he actually lost the French pronunciation (painfully exaggerated as it was) and sounded American at certain moments, and that was enough to pull me, somewhat, out of the movie.

Gordon-Levitt was surrounded by actual French actors, including Charlotte Le Bon (whom I saw in "The Hundred-foot Journey"), who plays Petit's love interest, Annie. They are all competent in English, and Le Bon even gets to affect an exaggerated American country twang to humorous effect at the beginning of the film. James Badge Dale (whom I know best as Jack Bauer's ill-fated partner Chase Edmunds in "24") also tries his hand at speaking French, but he doesn't sound native at all. I give him full marks for speed and rhythm, but his pronunciation is somewhat garbled.

As for Zemeckis, he's created a technically competent film, but one that showcases his somewhat tiresome tendency to rely on special effects to the detriment of story. Ligament was also unimpressed by all the CGI, which seemed to take away from both the suspense and from any sense of reality. At one point, Zemeckis's camera zooms up the entire height of one of the World Trade Center Towers; at other moments, it helicopters around Petit as he moves slowly and deliberately along his high wire. I heard that some viewers actually vomited during some of these dizzying scenes, but I didn't find the visuals all that tense. Zemeckis's other problem had to do with continuity errors: Petit steps on a nail not long before he's due to walk the Towers, and during his walk, he bleeds through his footwear. Unfortunately, I saw moments where Petit's soles had no blood on them, and there were shots that showed no blood spots on the cable. (Other shots did show such spots.)

At the same time, it was obvious that Zemeckis's film was as much about the lost Twin Towers as it was about Petit. I couldn't help feeling that the film was meant as something of a love letter to the World Trade Center, which is rendered in affectionately scrupulous detail, both inside and out. I was sad as I watched these scenes and thought about 9/11. Petit the narrator ends his narration by telling us that, after his walk was done and the furor had died down, he was given a pass to the World Trade Center's observation deck. On the pass, where an expiration date was supposed to be, a word was written instead: "Forever." Of course, as 9/11 taught us, nothing is forever.

"The Walk" was a watchable film. Overall, I found it fairly entertaining, but Ligament was right: "The Martian" made for more compelling viewing.

NB: Gordon-Levitt was personally trained in wire walking by Philippe Petit himself.


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