I feel like there’s an odd trend going on in Hollywood lately, where they seem to think it makes sense to make films out of successful documentaries. A couple weeks ago we got a film called Freeheld that’s about a dying female cop who becomes emroiled in a legal battle about giving her lesbian partner her benefits after she died, and it’s primarily based on a documentary of the same name that from what I can tell is vastly better than it’s cinematic equivalent. It just kind of feels like the same weird trend of taking successful foreign films, and remaking them, pretty much shot for shot, just with white people that are speaking English. It’s like Hollywood thinks people don’t want to read subtitles, or watch a story in the form of a documentary, scared that they may learn something…which is probably incredibly accurate, so I guess it’s working for them. And the latest up for the documentary remake job is Robert Zemeckis’ cinematic telling of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk across the Twin Towers in the World Trade Center, called the Walk.
Now, the story of Petit’s walk was already told, both in his memoir, and in the incredible 2008 documentary Man on Wire. But apparently the American people didn’t want to watch a documentary, so they stuck Joseph Gordon-Levitt into a CGI-filled Hollywood adaptation. And it was okay. Not great, but not as bad as I was anticipating when I went in. As soon as I heard about the movie, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. It just seemed pointless. Man on Wire is one of my favorite documentaries, it’s pretty much flawless, and it just didn’t make sense to me to make what would inevitably be an inferior film out of it. But then the reviews started coming in, and people were generally liking it a lot. It has a pretty great score on Rotten Tomatoes, much better than I was assuming, so I figured I’d go check it out. And while I’m not mad I went, I’m also not that thrilled. It just felt completely needless and forgettable.
Now, the plot is pretty simple. Philippe Petit is an aspiring high-wire acrobat living in Paris, trying to find something to do with his life. He rides around on a unicycle, juggles, and acts like a mime, all while looking for places to practice his high-wire act. He learns his art from an incredibly camp Ben Kinglsey, who was seriously phoning this one in, and meets the beautiful singer Annie, who has the vital role of “the girl” in the movie, and has pretty much no point in the movie. Then, one day he’s sitting in his dentists office, and reads a magazine that has an article about the newly built Twin Towers in New York City, and Petit decides that he absolutely has to walk across them. So after briefly trying to figure out how to do a high-wire act on Notre Dame, he heads to New York with a team of French co-conspirators. He then starts scoping out the Towers, sneaking around inside them in a variety of costumes, while planning his “artistic coup.” The even picks up some American co-conspirators, including a dude with a crazy Devil beard, Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Rec, and some weird stoner dude who was essentially Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. And after some sneaking around and a bunch of crazy problems, they get the cable across, and as dawn breaks Petit walks across the wire for a while, drawing the attention of people on the street, and some cops who show up to arrest Petit. We then end the movie with an incredibly over-the-top reference to September 11th, that felt like the moment in any movie about Abraham Lincoln when someone says that he’ll be late for the theater.
Now, it may seem that I really didn’t like this movie from what I’ve written so far, but that’s not really the case. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. It was just over-all an average movie, one of the most bland and inoffensive flicks I’ve seen this year. After watching the movie I pretty much went straight home and my wife and I re-watched Man on Wire, just to see if my memory of it was spoiling the Walk. And I really saw that while the Walk hits all the right plot points, and adds in some weird Hollywood stuff, it was really just a little off for me. I think one of the things that made Man on Wire so great was that at it’s heart, it was structured like a heist movie. They had them planning everything in secret, and introduced characters with title like “the Inside Man.” And I feel like the movie would have worked so much better if it had rolled with that feel too. Every now and then it popped in with the heist vibe, but overall it seemed scared to make it an intriguing movie. It was pretty blandly directed, with no flash or style. And man was 70’s New York clean and happy. It felt like the Disney version of a dark, grimy time. The feeling I get from Man on Wire was one of hope and inspiration. Petit went to New York in an incredibly dark time. Nixon was days away from resigning, crime was rampant in the city, and the nation was just generally at a bleak time. And here’s the story of a dreamer, breaking the law to accomplish something amazing. It was a story about following your dream and doing a wonderful thing that will inspire people. And I felt like the movie just didn’t get that across. Now, I think it’s inevitable that the movie would talk about the 9/11 attacks…because of course, but I was surprised to go through Man on Wire and see that they never mentioned it once. The end of the movie just seemed kind of cheap, bringing up the tragedy to get some extra emotion out of a pretty weak script. But this wasn’t a story about 9/11, or even the towers. It was about one man’s dream, and the amazing feats he went through to accomplish them, and it just felt strange to throw that weird little bit in the end.
The last thing I wanted to mention was the ridiculous use of CGI in this movie. I get it, the Towers aren’t there anymore, so they couldn’t use them practically, but it still seemed like a weird decision to me to make them completely CGI. Like, even when Petit is resting his head on the foundation? They couldn’t get a real building that looked right for that shot? The clearly has a set for the rooftops, but everything else was just so painfully CGI. And then the walk itself was laughable. Most of the time it was just an obviously greenscreened in Gordon-Levitt against pretty weak CG, or some times when it was just a completely computer created visual, with a fake Petit. It just felt like Zemeckis wanted to make this like Beowulf or Polar Express, and someone told him he had to use actual actors for most of the movie. I understand that there’s economic incentives for using CGI instead of practical effects, but man do I wish they at least built a set with like, the top story of the towers and had Gordon-Levitt walk across them, instead of what appeared to be 100% green screen. It just felt so fake, and didn’t illicit any actual fear or danger to me. Then when I watch Man on Wire and you actually see the real footage of Petit, it’s so incredibly tense and awe inspiring. And then we get the most egregious moment of the movie, when a completely CGI bird flies over to Petit, looks him in the eye, and flies off. Completely needless and ineffectual, a perfect symbol for this movie. Go see Man on Wire. It’s on Netflix, and tells the story a million times better than this movie.
the Walk was written by Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, was directed by Robert Zemeckis, and was distributed by TriStar Pictures, 2015.
Categories: Reel Talk