I have always had the highest regard for people who not only have a major passion in their lives but also go on to work on the same and convert it into reality. As it is a good majority of the people Worldwide do not really have a strong passion towards anything, and even among the very few who are really passionate about something it’s quite rare to see people actually trying to do something about it. At the same time it irks me at times to see some people who are truly blessed in having the right kind of atmosphere, support mechanism and everything else needed to just take that one step in making the plunge, the plunge to do something about their passion but who just don’t do it for various reasons. Philippe Petit is not someone like that though; he is someone who dared to dream, and dream beyond the ordinary. But that alone does not make him great, what makes him great is that he converted his dreams into reality.
Robert Zemeckis is the man responsible for bringing the story of Philippe Petit and his passion in front of the whole World through his latest film, The Walk. The film went on to be released exclusively in IMAX screens in the U.S on 30th September and will now have a wider release on 9th October, the same day when it opens up in India as well. Robert Zemeckis has been one of my favourite filmmakers for a long time; initially as a kid I enjoyed many of his films without even knowing that he was the man behind them. Films such as Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future (entire series), Who Framed Roger Rabbit etc were enough proof of his talent and the variety that he brought with his films. Needless to say from the time he made Forrest Gump (1994) not just me but a whole lot of movie lovers in India also started associating his name with the films he made. While he is busier as a producer these days, whenever he does direct a film he still manages to make an impact and films like Beowulf (2007) or the recent Flight (2012) are examples of the same.
I had heard of Philippe Petit as someone who is a master at conquering heights, a French high wire artist known for his various high rise acts. But it is only when I heard of the movie and then out of curiosity having got to know a little more about his profile did I realize the worth of his talent (also remembering Man on Wire in the process). I was lucky to have seen the trailer for the first time in an IMAX screen and was quite intrigued and blown away, I ended up getting to watch the movie in a preview also coincidentally in the same IMAX screen and I must admit that it was a wonderful experience indeed. Well more on that later, let me dispense away with the formalities first. By now if you have heard of the film I’m sure you probably know that the film is all about how Philippe Petit shot to fame with the very dangerous act of walking on a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on August 7th, 1974.
The Walk begins with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shown perched on top of the Statue of Liberty, talking to us and introducing us to his story and the film. The action soon shifts to Paris as we see Petit as a young performer on the streets of the city, juggling away on his unicycle and making a living. But his heart lies in scaling great heights and walking the tight rope, in the process he comes across Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), a musician who seems to have faith in him, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) a renowned circus performer and an expert tight rope walker and Jean Lewis (Clement Sibony) a photographer. While Petit continues to make progress with his rope walking skills, he decides to achieve the ridiculously impossible and illegal feat of walking a tight rope between the 2 towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. The rest of the film is all about how Petit goes about the task and manages to convert his dream into reality.
Robert Zemeckis doesn’t waste time and ensures that we are sucked into the life of Petit and are part of his journey of converting his dream into reality. The initial portions have a slight influx of humour as we see Petit slowly but surely turning out to be a confident, self-focussed and capable tight rope walker. But there isn’t any tension as expected for quite a while though and hence it is not very surprising to hear some people complain of why the movie doesn’t work much for a long time. I see it slightly differently though, considering that the reference material for the film is Petit’s own book, To Reach the Clouds, I think it was a conscious effort by the director to reserve the best part of the film in the form of the actual act of doing the walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre by Petit. Whatever you probably felt till then, regardless of it being positive or negative is all forgotten more or less as you are literally pushed to the very edge to see Petit perform his dangerous act.
The IMAX 3D visual experience is mind blowing and literally takes away your breath as you hold your heart in your hands as Petit walks slowly but confidently. In fact the 30 odd minutes of “The Walk” is so eerie that probably people with a fear of heights could even be in trouble :), but then that’s the power of the film actually. Kudos to the VFX team as well as DOP Dariusz Wolski for giving us an exhilarating experience, making it look almost as good as having seen Petit’s original walk live. But the voiceover of Petit could have certainly have been toned down a bit I feel, especially during the walk as it would have allowed the viewer to be less distracted. The actors visible in the film are all competent but Charlotte Le Bon and veteran Ben Kingsley definitely shine. The scenes between Papa Rudy and Petit are a treat to watch, a strange but definite bond that develops between a reluctant teacher and student. I’m not too sure if Joseph Gordon-Levitt got the French accent right, but trained by the real Petit himself he certainly looks and feels very agile and convincing enough to portray Petit.
It’s also interesting to see how Robert Zemeckis comes up with a near naturally effective process of making the characters speak more in English than in French, even in Paris thus making it look a little more convincing and avoiding the use of subtitles longer than needed. Leave everything else aside, the film might not convince everyone for a variety of reasons but for the final walk that’s shown with great style and panache I’m sure there will hardly be a soul who will remain unimpressed. Robert Zemeckis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ultimately make sure that if quite a few people got to know of Petit through the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire (2008), then here the same tale is conveyed in a grander fashion, hopefully reaching out to more number of people as well. Ultimately the film is all about the triumph of Petit’s passion, perhaps there won’t be any debate on that front.