Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

TheWalkPosterDirector Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight) perfectly applies his fascination with technology to storytelling in The Walk, which is one of the year’s best pictures.

On one layer, this is a light, whimsical movie about an acrobat taking his acrobatics seriously to prove an important point about human potential to the whole world. The visual, first-person narrative from the Statue of Liberty’s torch and other fanciful touches are part of the performance. Mr. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote The Walk, drives his idea of what one might call a performance artist’s creative need to act out over and over. Executed on the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a true story based on a high-wire walk by French acrobat Philippe Petit, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t get in the way. As with any practiced, crafted and tuned live performance, the flourish enhances the daring act.

That the skyscrapers—and Mr. Zemeckis comes from a great American city of skyscrapers, Chicago—are the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) make the events depicted in this groundbreaking movie more enticing.

Seen by this writer at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in IMAX 3D, The Walk begins as the tale of a boy who seeks to create his own “sacred space” in a circle on the sidewalks of Paris. Of course, this puts him at odds with police and his own parents, who neither support nor understand his strange pursuits. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mimes, juggles and, eventually, walks on wire. It is his passion to command an audience’s attention to certain aspects of reality as he recasts them. Philippe performs magic. He rides a unicycle. When he sees a picture of the World Trade Center under construction in New York City, he makes up his mind—he calls seeing the photograph “providence”—about embarking upon his greatest adventure.

As Philippe plans his trespassing crime, he sees walking on a wire between the Twin Towers as a defining part of his own, personal journey. So he sets out to practice his skill at a circus, where he enlists the aid of a seasoned high-wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who becomes Philippe’s mentor. Here, too, he breaks away from tradition and his insistence on doing things his way leads to other complications. As Philippe loses support from blood relatives, he gains support from those related only by their shared passion for their own values, such as singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony, The Tourist). “I want to know more,” Philippe says at one point in The Walk. His chosen friends and master help him learn to acquire new knowledge.

The camaraderie is infectious, as Philippe attracts an audience, makes mistakes, expresses fleeting moments of doubt, falls and learns how to relax into the high-wire act. In the process, he becomes the ultimate live performer, appreciating his own choices, audiences and themes and gauging how to assess the potential for distraction, danger and the risks of the fears of others. For example, one of his team members has a crippling fear of heights. Philippe, in dealing with his own fear of losing the lad, leads by example to provide the right measure of confidence in his own ability. With Mr. Kingsley’s circus ringmaster looking on while dragging on a cigarette in an elegant holder, Philippe studies cable thickness and load strength with the precision of an engineer. No detail, lesson or fact escapes his notice or accounting.

He is a cunning criminal; a foreigner plotting to intrude upon the World Trade Center for subversive purposes, and with a van full of foreign accomplices no less. No one who knows the history of the Twin Towers can ignore the stark similarities and differences in his crime and the acts of Islamic terrorist mass murder that would blast and ultimately take the skyscrapers down in 1993 and 2001. Philippe practices on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before he comes to lower Manhattan for that exceptional act in August of 1974, and, in a sense, the closest he comes to having a religion is his steely conviction in himself and in the power to master his mind and body here on earth, strictly on his own terms and for his own sake.

Philippe Petit is the antidote to the religious terrorist. He targets the World Trade Center to express himself and glorify man’s greatest achievements, not to martyr himself and destroy man’s greatest achievements. He calls his unexpected act by its French word: the coup.

The attempted coup is, as recreated by Mr. Zemeckis with amazing clarity and realism, body-tingling, nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The practices take place to Alan Silvestri’s jazz score. The act itself happens in silence or with music that matches its sense of the sublime. “The outside world starts to disappear,” Philippe recalls of his day on top of the world. “I feel the wire supporting me with the towers supporting the wire” and, in an instant, at the birth of the rising steel skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, the Frenchman who juggled for money on the sidewalks of Paris enacts something both beautiful and defiant in perfect unity with nature and the manmade. The Walk is meant for this moment, and everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt, cast and the special effects crew led by Mr. Zemeckis, lets it linger in wonder and amazement for a spectacularly powerful climax in cinema.

The Walk is that soulful. Who better than an independent Frenchman standing on top of France’s gift to America to stir the spirit of free enterprise that built the greatest nation on earth? Petit, who, in reality, called for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt, reduces his accomplishment’s metrics to its essential meaning in the beginning of The Walk. He speaks of a choice between life and death. This is the unspoken, fundamental contest between the World Trade Center acts of 1974 and 2001. The Walk, in two parts playfulness and precision, depicts peace and serenity as the proper reward for honoring the manmade upon its creation. Philippe Petit put an acrobatic accent on two great symbols of American capitalism; Robert Zemeckis brings the performance and its exhaustive practices gloriously to the screen. If it achieves nothing more than this, an exact recreation of the single most life-affirming moment in the World Trade Center’s brief history here on earth, The Walk is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.

Related Articles and Posts

Movie Review: World Trade Center

TV Review: Rebuilding the World Trade Center

TV & DVD Review: Path to Paradise (the Story of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing)

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Movie Review: Sicario

sicarioPosterDespair is the main theme of Sicario, the new movie by director Denis Villenueve. This one, like his previous picture, Prisoners, is stylized and well made. It proceeds as though it’s got something crucial to convey, with compelling characters, twists, scenes, transitions, music and photography. Everything is designed to build tension toward action and denouement.

That the foundational part is problematic does not make this picture about police, drugs and gangs and the two countries that feed off the buying and selling of drugs, the U.S. and Mexico, less enthralling. Sicario, starring Josh Brolin (True Grit, No Country for Old Men, Men in Black 3) and Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) and Emily Blunt (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Into the Woods), reunited after 2010’s underrated The Wolfman, stretches situational types—the cop as family man, the woman in a male-dominated profession, the jaded professional with a heart of gold—into a tight plot.

Villenueve keeps the audience both at bay and on edge, shrouding a Mexican drug cartel operation in mystery and blood. Hardness sets in from the start, with a federal drug bust in Arizona, and each character, from Brolin’s wise-cracking fed to Victor Garber’s polished professional, plays to Sicario‘s theme that practically no one can escape some form of a drug-induced death in the desert. If Prisoners enraptured with its theme that we are all just prisoners here, as the Eagles’ Don Henley sings, Sicario, which means hitman in Spanish, pushes the notion that everyone is guilty of doing some type of hit.

Blunt’s character bucks the trend, taking out drug gangsters but feeling it afterwards. She’s driven to exact justice with her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) and question the authority of those to whom she volunteers to report for a mysteriously dangerous mission into the center of the drug cartel. Collaborating with a seriously damaged Del Toro and swaggering Brolin and their motley, manly crew of various paramilitary types, Blunt’s earnest agent gives the murky field operation an air of credibility. But why this wild bunch needs her remains a mystery. With slow-moving overhead shots, a Twister-type droning score with pulsating beat before every action sequence, Villenueve makes the players matter one by one and without the camp and cartoonishness of Scarface or No Country for Old Men. There’s real craftsmanship in Sicario‘s filmmaking, alternating fast and slow action scenes, such as bang-bang gunplay peppered with step-by-step journeys into long passageways, signs and cityscapes signalling the bigger pictures and, in particular, one silhouetted transition from a public to private interior.

Sicario has nearly everything a drug gangster movie should include: jaded agents, shifting allegiance, double cross, guns, caravans, border crossings, Texans, Arizona and a honky tonk, too. It has a good script by Taylor Sheridan and good performances by Brolin, Blunt and especially Del Toro, a fine actor who deserves a role outside of drug culture. As good as Blunt is in the role of a policewoman on the verge of becoming a whistleblower as all the planning, raiding and shooting gets more convoluted, I didn’t totally buy her character. Many in today’s audiences probably will. She’s sufficiently blank and tough in the cop role, with a flat American accent that reminded me of Jane Leeves as Brit Daphne Moon doing a deep, flat American accent on Frasier. I like Blunt as an actress because she can play a wide variety of roles with conviction. She does that here, too.

But either the part’s underdeveloped or today’s female supercop is so deeply ingrained through countless movies and TV police procedural programs that you might not notice the character’s several mistakes. She errs in judgment time and again, from losing a weapon and lagging behind to other questionable decisions, including saying the movie’s worst lines. Her character’s stumbles blend into the hyper-tense action, so it’s less noticeable, but each of her out of place objections, mistakes and reckless actions diminish the character’s plausibility. This may be part of bleak Sicario‘s point about the character’s arc, for all I know. It is certainly part of its theme that despair from fighting a war on the drug cartel is human.

“We must be engaged to engage,” someone warns before one of the movie’s most exciting scenes. The ever-looping cycle of engagement, whatever else Sicario lacks, including an examination of what drives engagement of buying, selling and outlawing drugs, is a targeted, terrifying depiction.

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Civil War Stories

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Part of this year’s American Civil War exhibit, “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, at the Autry National Center of the American West includes an occasional academic affair and I recently attended such a panel discussion, titled “Invisible Injuries: Civil War Veterans and the Legacies of Violence.” The event was informative and sobering.

Two scholars, Dora Costa, a UCLA professor of economics and author of Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War and Roxane Cohen, a University of California, Irvine psychology and social behavior professor, and moderator William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, examined several aspects of recent studies about Civil War soldiers, including certain demographic and relational breakdowns, injuries and deaths.

They addressed their research into war-related trauma among Civil War veterans and their communities and the long-term psychological consequences of the war. Among their findings, which readers can explore here, are that 19 percent of enlisted soldiers in the study were between the ages of nine and 17 years old. I had known from my education and studies with John David Lewis that those who fought in the war were especially young. I had not known, however, that 95 percent of those enlisted were volunteers, more than any other war since the American Revolution. The presentation gave me a sense of life the United States at the time of the Civil War while demonstrating that the long-term effects of war on communities, states, countries and the culture are serious, devastating and transformative, if realized decades later.

Their resarch shows that unit cohesion, such as how many in the company were related by blood, similar age, community, ethnicity, etc. and/or how closely soldiers related to one another as friends and comrades, enhanced a soldier’s ability to heal and survive. Another positive impact apparently came from strong social network support, such as moral support through picnics and parades, which had measurable improvement on mens’ ability to survive and sustain injury after the war. Even celebrations around Christmastime and Thanksgiving correlate to mens’ higher survival rates and longer lives. Scholars also explained that companies were constructed differently; the Union companies were kept largely intact, while the Confederacy constantly replenished its company troops on the idea that new recruits would motivate the men to learn to fight.

Additionally, Costa attributes the rise of trench warfare to the huge proliferation following the Napoleonic Wars of small arms. When I asked her about survivability rates among abolitionists that enlisted—survivability rates were highest among deserters and free black men in the Union Army who were not assigned to fight in battle as often—Costa said they died in greater numbers because abolitionists were more motivated to fight to win and end the war to abolish slavery, which the Civil War did, in fact, accomplish. This was a fascinating program, part of the Autry’s “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, which I plan to review in a future post.

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Prophet of Doom

The Pope’s visit to the United States of America, the first by Pope Francis, expressed explicit hatred for individualism, capitalism and the ideals that make America great. The assault was enveloped in platitudes. But, as I wrote when the South American Jesuit priest rose to power in 2013 (read the post here), he speaks of reform in order only to enforce dark, ancient and primitive beliefs.

In itself, this is not surprising. Neither is it shocking that obedient crowds lined American city boulevards, roaring and chanting in praise of the pope’s anti-Americanism. In Washington, DC, New York City and the nation’s first capital, Philadelphia, the pope’s message unleashed an equally obedient media unifying leftists and conservatives alike.

Indeed, the press largely disdained the idea of protest and praised the Catholic Church’s vicar of Christ without even the pretense of objectivity. Brian Williams, returning to the airwaves, did the best job of explaining the event as a news event, breaking logistics down as the visit paralyzed America’s largest eastern cities, though he, too, reported without doubt, question or scrutiny. At least Williams, in his first NBC News appearance since being suspended for an admission of deception, examined whether the New York Times had in its papal analysis been biased toward the left. But most in the media simply bowed to the pope.

That’s putting it lightly. I had to search for the smallest sign of an independent voice of dissent or reason to the massive, crippling, state-sponsored mobilization of police and paramilitary units to patrol, control and lock down major U.S. cities on behalf of a religious figure. One article reported “[a] chaotic scene outside Madison Square Garden, where travellers with suitcases struggled past security to get in and out of Penn station [as]…Unholy cries of “holy Mary” and “Jesus Christ” filled the air. Apparently, one frustrated woman cried: “Why is everything blocked off if he isn’t even outside?” The Washington Post reported on the Philadelphia leg of the tour that “[t]he birthplace of American liberty was on virtual lockdown to greet [Pope] Francis.” But all of that came within the wider context of unfiltered endorsement of everything the Pope said, did and sought.

Those abused by Catholic leaders heard little or nothing from the pope who otherwise railed against abuse of power in speech after speech. “It’s a tough week to be a victim,” Barbara Dorris, spokeswoman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told one newspaper. “They feel like once again they’ve been forgotten.”

Instead, in homilies at mass and various speeches, including the first papal address to a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis stressed the collective over the individual, self-abnegation over self-interest and, above all, mysticism over reason.

Almost every speech emphasized what he calls “the common good”. In his historic speech to the United Nations General Assembly, he denounced “unrestrained ambitions and collective forms of selfishness”, unequivocally stating that the ultimate goal is to grant all countries, without exception, a share in—and a genuine and equitable influence on—other sovereign nations’ decision-making. Pope Francis demanded of the world body new rights for “the vast ranks of the excluded.” He openly declared opposition to capitalism, which he has derided as having the stench of “the dung of the devil”, and he asserted a new, mystical “right of the environment”.

Pope Francis told the United Nations:

We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.

The fundamental bad, according to this new pope, is “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity”, which, properly speaking, describes every decent and honest human quest for productive achievement. What artist, producer or entrepreneur has in mind a specific boundary for his creative pursuit and prosperity? Do Brad Pitt and Taylor Swift seek only so much power over their own works and no more? Only so much money for a song or movie and not more than that? Do they exist for the sake of others at the expense of themselves? More to the point, should they? The Pope says Yes, but the civilized answer is No. Not for the egoist who seeks the pursuit of happiness, which means: one’s own, personal happiness. Did Steve Jobs live for the sake of others and put bounds on the power of Apple and what he sought to conceive, design and produce—with a cap on Apple’s profit?

What is the likelihood that you would know who he was if he had?

What the pope who says that he has not watched television in 25 years derides as a “culture of waste” is a culture of creation; America and the West are, at their best, a marvelous, new, industrial means, based on capitalism and individual rights, of production, distribution and profit for the individual, whether as a new song, movie or technology. Thanks to Steve Jobs, for example, when today’s consumer speaks of an ecosystem, he speaks of a new way of creating, consuming and leveraging for his own sake a photograph, document, communication, note, feature, calculation or audiovisual show across multiple platforms.

Pope Francis insists that Apple—and every person or company—”must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family…” In practical terms, Pope Francis says that everyone on earth must sacrifice to provide others with “lodging, labor, and land…”

After reasserting this Catholic dogma, i.e., that the good is to suffer while sacrificing for the sake of others and die, rather than to enjoy yourself for your own sake and live, Pope Francis addressed what he calls “the destruction of all mankind”. He endorsed Obama’s Iran deal as “proof of the potential of political good will” citing what he—who has faith in a supernatural being and in himself as a substitute for God—calls “hard evidence”.

Both the Pope’s zeal for an Islamic dictatorship’s achievement of nuclear power and his anti-capitalism are rooted in his belief that the meaning of one’s life “is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.” In short, the good, even the less linear “common” good, is whatever is good for others, even if the others chant “Death to America!” as they rush to get weapons of mass death and destruction.

Finally, faced with real, hard evidence of mass death and destruction at the site where the World Trade Center once stood, the pope refused to name and identify those who attacked, Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia, let alone name and identify the religion that motivates them, Islam. In fact, he never mentioned that the initiation of force came from those moved by religion. The fallen, he implied, are merely symbols “of the inability to find solutions which respect the common good.” Pope Francis did not denounce the act of war itself during his remarks at the place where the Twin Towers collapsed. He pointedly offered no praise for the innocent who were mass murdered on September 11, 2001. Instead, he made reference to those who helped others, the so-called “first responders”. The first murdered, he implied, by not singling them out for recognition and not naming their murderers, may have deserved it. After all, they worked in the World Trade Center, a place to trade for one’s self-interest.

Of the only nation specifically founded on the right to pursue one’s happiness being explicitly founded as a secular republic based on individual rights, not upon Judeo-Christianity, dogma or dictatorship, the pope in his many speeches, prayers and homilies said nothing positive. As Time magazine reports, Pope Francis removed from his prepared speech to Congress the single reference to the philosophy that makes America the greatest nation on earth:

Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind [sic] of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776).”

Jettisoning recognition of America’s independence did not diminish the pope’s appeal, as leftists such as Fox News analyst Juan Williams and New York City Mayor De Blasio and conservatives such as those on Fox News and in the Heritage Foundation raved about the religious visit. There were a few exceptions, besides Objectivists, including talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who noted the pope’s anti-capitalism, and columnist George Will, who warned against any religious leader moralizing about domestic policy in America.

But most Americans appear to agree with Geraldine Quinones, a woman who said she won a lottery ticket to see the Pope, adding that she regards the win as “the luck of the Lord”. “We’re lucky to have him here,” she told a newspaper. “I think he’s going to change everything.” By making explicit many Americans’ steadfast dedication to selfless ethics and faith, the anti-American Pope Francis arguably is changing everything already, moving the nation faster toward—and serving as the prophet for—doom, spreading faster, wider acceptance of the same ideas taking us there.

The cost of the papal visit, according to a financial analysis which concludes that the multimillion dollar “national security event” ultimately will be paid largely by U.S. taxpayers, without their consent, is in line to be overdue from “everybody but the Vatican.”

What did Americans get in return? Besides another anti-American assault from the head of the Vatican complete with endorsements of a Kentucky mystic and monk who sought to mix religions in faith and a socialist who praised Marx, Lenin and Mao, Pope Francis delivered an explicitly anti-human line in one of his sermons when he said: “As far as goodness and purity of heart are concerned, we human beings don’t have much to show.” So it is that Americans fell for the faithfully, hatefully, hypocritically anti-capitalist pope who rode in the back of a small car when he was wasn’t riding on helicopters and jet planes while denouncing technology and selfishness as he pleaded to the newly obedient American minions to: “Pray for me.”

The antidote to the past six days of faith-based, anti-Americanism is to think for yourself and for yourself.

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President Carter on the Kiss Camera


President Carter

When he was first elected president in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, Jimmy Carter was seen as a reaction to the downfall of disgraced President Richard Nixon; while Nixon was repressive and cagey, Carter was open and transparent. He walked during his inauguration, he let his child Amy into important meetings, he indulged his mother Miss Lillian and his brother Billy and he’s the first U.S. president to have talked to Playboy.

The peanut farmer, former naval officer and Georgia governor was also America’s first born-again Christian president and he ineffectually presided over a downturn in the economy and an attack on America by Iran. President Carter (1977-1981) struggled to regain his relaxed, jovial popularity as an outsider to Washington. But he never recovered. He was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. He has since been relatively unwelcome in his own party, the Democrats, relegated again to being the outsider and writing books when he’s not denouncing Israel or making a short statement about a certain policy, controversy or issue. As a former U.S. president, Carter’s been irrelevant for a long time.

This makes his recent appearance at a baseball game one of his best moments. As many readers know, 90-year-old President Carter of Plains, Georgia, disclosed last month that cancer has spread into his brain and liver. He’s being treated with drugs and radiation therapy and I wish him well. In the face of this grim diagnosis, he did something especially American for which I think he deserves credit: he took his wife Rosalynn to a game of the most distinctly American sport, baseball, and, when the “kiss camera” or kiss cam came to him, he smiled that famous grin and kissed Mrs. Carter. The kiss (watch the video clip here) was a simple gesture, and, whether it was planned or not, in both his and today’s cultural contexts, it is wonderfully American.

A kiss in the midst of adversity is a potentially powerful act, as I wrote about here, and cancer patient Jimmy Carter’s choice to take his wife to the ballgame and be as jovial and accessible as possible—with such a cheerful display of passion for his wife—is an example of good leadership. While other former presidents with shameful records, such as George H.W. Bush, underscore the difference between themselves and the American people they once pledged to serve, President Carter’s act of love, in a uniquely American setting with a uniquely American display of immodesty, ought to remind Americans of one of his best qualities—Jimmy Carter’s sense that being an American president means being cognizant, not contemptuous, of what it truly means to be among the American people.

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