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Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

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Director 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, which does what America should have done and rebuilds the Twin Towers, is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.


Related Articles and Posts

TV Review: Rebuilding the World Trade Center

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

Travel: John Hancock Tower

20130721-120931.jpgJohn Hancock Tower on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile in Chicago is a grand achievement. It moves with the wind. I’ve been up on top at the bar, observatory or restaurant many times and this summer’s visit—I was staying across the street at the Westin Michigan Avenue—was as exciting an experience as when I first visited the top of what was once Chicago’s tallest skyscraper shortly after it opened for business in 1970.

It’s a building that rises high above one of the few surviving structures from the 19th century’s Great Chicago Fire, the city’s water tower, made of Joliet limestone and symbolizing a contrast that captures the best of Chicago’s spirit: strong, solid, sharp, hardworking, defiant. Also at ground level around the Hancock tower is another commercial building, Water Tower Place, which fits the Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile model of unabashed capitalism. In fact, the skyscraper was built and owned by a big business: the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Like that enterprise, Michigan Avenue’s stores, companies and hotels are great, American symbols of freedom, capitalism, innovation, industry and wealth: Bloomingdales, Chicago Tribune Tower, Walgreens, The Drake Hotel and the tall, black, cross-beamed tower that represents big business and an American founding father at once. Never mind that the Hancock tower’s anchored by a generic Best Buy now in a city ruled by a Clinton-Obama crony in a city known more for nightly mayhem and murder—with this once-magnificent mile itself assaulted by roaming thugs—than for the freedom to create, assess for risk, insure, build and make money. Chicago, where Ayn Rand once lived on the city’s south side and was enthusiastically received by her largest audience in 1963 for a speech on America’s persecuted minority—big business—has been transformed into a thick, government-run cartel by Big Government types empowered by a former church and community activist who became president named Barack Obama.

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John Hancock Tower 2013. Photo by Scott Holleran (c) Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

The tower still stands. From the skyscraper’s Web site:

  • The distinctive, stacked x-cross bracing allows the building to sway only 5 to 8 inches in a 60-mph wind
  • Enough steel to manufacture 33,000 cars was used to make the frame and weighs 46,000 tons
  • The 2,500,000 pounds of aluminum could be used to create a skating rink covering all of Lake Michigan
  • The complete development took five million man-hours
  • 1,250 miles of wiring carries enough power to supply a city of  30,000 people

Construction started on May 5, 1965 and was completed on May 6, 1968. The architectural firm is Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the building is designed by architect and design partner Bruce Graham with Chief Structural Engineer Fazlur Kahn. The building contains 897,000 square feet of office space, 172,000 square feet of retail space, 17,371 square feet (on the 94th floor) for the observatory (admission costs $18; $12 for kids, children under 3 are admitted for free) and it comes with a 34,307 square-foot facility for broadcasting. There are 49 floors of residential condominiums. The John Hancock Building cost $100 million at the time of construction and took approximately 36 months to build.

The observatory is open from 9 am to 11 pm every day, 365 days a year (last ticket sold at 10:30 pm) and I recommend if you have time for only one that you head for the skyscraper’s bar, The Signature Lounge, instead to save money – drinks are expensive but you can sit, have a beverage or some food and enjoy the view of up to four states, lots of flat land and Lake Michigan for miles and miles. Ask for Virginia if she’s working; she’s the best skyscraper waitress in town as I recently discovered. There’s a fine dining restaurant, too, which I’ve patronized in the past and it was just OK. I prefer dining at the top of the Standard Oil Building (now named Aon Center) on Randolph but that’s another skyscraper. I have been to the top of the Sears Tower (now named Willis Tower) in the winter but it’s not my favorite building.

Hancock’s proximity to so many other area treasures—Lake Shore Drive, Oak Street Beach, The Drake Hotel, shops along Michigan Avenue, scads of businesses, companies, burger joints, Billy Goat Tavern, the Chicago River, Grand Luxe Cafe, Tribune Tower, Chicago River and its Marina Towers and Wacker Drive—make it an excellent choice for touring while visiting the Windy City.

Photo by Scott Holleran. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 20130 All rights reserved.

Photo by Scott Holleran. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013. All rights reserved.

I grew up in and near Chicago, taking residence at various homes on School Street, Eddy Street, on Chicago Avenue in Evanston and in Wilmette. I used to take the El—the Skokie Swift, the Evanston Express, every train on the city’s downtown and northward—to work near Old Orchard, the Apparel Center across from the Merchandise Mart, a building on Jackson near Sears Tower and I’ve danced on stage at Park West, the Vic, Cabaret Metro and Neo and nearly frozen my tail off waiting at all hours at every El platform hitting those useless heating buttons in years gone by. I wrote my first articles on assignment in Chicago. Went to my first sports games there, getting crushed on opening day at Wrigley Field and putting up with drunks in the bleachers and getting my wallet stolen at Comiskey Park when I went to see the White Sox. I’ve been lucky to have lived in Chicago and I still love it. The city I’ve loved is on its way out (same as the country) but intelligent, friendly, decent, hardworking people—and great buildings—do exist. They’re in Chicago to look up to. The more reason one has to look down, the more reason to seize the moment and look up. And, here, for now, is Chicago’s John Hancock Tower.