For me, this is life.

For me, this is life.

 

Every story is a journey – one that will take many turns before it rests. Those turns aren’t always ones we want to take, and yet sometimes you have to take them to get to an ultimate, glorious destination. Where film is concerned, this can mean pedestrian beginnings, or even comically bad ones. However, these dodgy starts can occasionally lead to incredible endings. The question becomes, is the latter worth the former?

In the early 1970’s, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was a professional dreamer and an amateur tightrope walker. Petit would perform in public plazas around Paris, to whoever was nearby for whatever they wanted to drop into the hat. He juggled, he clowned, he mimed, and he rode a unicycle. He was chased by police, harassed by hecklers, and barely getting by. The only thing he really seemed to have going for him was a delicate romance with a fellow busker named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon).

Petit is especially enamoured with becoming a high wire walker, and trains diligently to master the art, even reaching out to a circus ringmaster named Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) to teach him everything he knows about balance, physics, and showmanship. As he develops a preternatural grasp of the art form, Petit begins to dream bigger and bigger…higher and higher. He starts to feel as though it’s not just about bringing the world into his act, but making his act part of the world itself.

After a daring walk across the towers of Notre Dame, Petit finds himself dreaming bigger…many stories bigger. Petit becomes fixated on walking a high wire stretched between the Twin Towers of the soon to be finished World Trade Center in New York. He is enchanted by them, seduced by them, feels as though it’s his calling to be one with them.

The trick, of course, is not only planning the stunt to the enth degree (since Petit has no interest in dying up there), but also getting everything required inside and up top. The planning and preparation of Petit’s walk is a heist worthy of Daniel Ocean, making for a fitting pledge and turn before the prestige of Petit’s greatest trick: the tightrope walk itself.

 

Joseph Gordon Levitt;Charlotte Le Bon

 

Like the very stunt it is trying to portray, witnessing THE WALK is a rare experience.

What sets it up is so curiously off-kilter, with our hero looking straight to camera and welcoming us as if we’d just tuned in to an episode of Masterpiece Theatre. What’s more, he’s doing so in a French accent that sounds like something just slightly less cartoonish that Pepe LePew. Now the actual Philippe Petit is a bit cartoonish, so the accent direction isn’t completely off the mark…but all the same there’s a world of difference between someone like Roberto Benigni and a Roberto Benigni caricature.

As if the cartoonish approach isn’t distracting enough, we continually return to Petit absurdly recounting the tale of his great masterpiece while perched on the torch of The Statue of Liberty. It’s as if we’re watching a daredevil motorcycle stuntman getting ready to jump twenty-five school buses on a Vespa scooter, but before making his approach to the ramp orders the buses get set on fire. It’s almost unbelievable that so many people involved with the execution of this film and its story structure that thought these were good ideas. Yet they did – writers, producers, the director.

You can’t blame the children for trying a stupid stunt; you have to ask where the parents were at when they could have prevented such stupidity.

So there we sit; aghast by the brutal introduction, mildly amused by a second-act heist, and in anticipation of Petit’s first step out on to that wire…almost despite ourselves.

What follows is an example of the power of film. The visual realization of Petit’s walk is frightening, moving, otherworldly, joyous, and stunning.

It depicts the high wire act in ways that simply were not possible in 1974. The camera takes us back and forth across the line with Petit. It hovers just below his feet and even soars high above him looking over one hundred stories down to the streets of Manhattan below. For a glorious stretch, we are transported out of the theatre to experience Petit’s walk in all its majesty, insanity, and fluidity. We’re never meant to believe what we’re witnessing is real exactly, but the again, so much of what Petit did doesn’t seem real to begin with. His masterpiece seems so otherworldly, that a photorealistic rendering of it would seem ill-fitting.

It’s this entire sequence – and it’s not a short sequence – that makes THE WALK worth seeing. Not only that, but it’s a piece of filmmaking that deserves to be witnessed on the biggest screen one can find. There is a physical sensation that actually makes amazing use of the 3-D filmmaking to make one experience the freedom of being surrounded by nothing but sky, not to mention peering down off the roof of The World Trade Centre. It lifts the audience up out of their seats in ways that are usually reserved for amusement park rides. It makes up for the silliness of the film’s beginning, and leaves you feeling not only like you witnessed the walk for yourself, but that you were up on that wire with Petit.

It’s a rare experience – a film that starts off so weak that becomes something so special. Forgetting for a moment that the incredible Oscar-winning documentary about this very incident exists, one should never have to pan through the mud for an act and a half in search of the diamond that ends the film. Philippe Petit’s feat was one of life and presence – a desire to do something indelible. While the cinematic rendering of that feat is likewise infused with life and presence, the path to get there is anything but indelible, and that is a pity.

 

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★  out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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