The New Trend in Small-Screen Comedy: Pastiche with a Purpose

There is a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch that rarely fails to make me grab the remote and press the fast forward button. It’s called “Cinema Classics,” and it features Kenan Thompson as a Robert Osbourne surrogate, presenting a (clearly fictional) staple of the classical Hollywood era. It’s mostly an excuse for the show’s ensemble to dress up in swanky 1940s costumes and the show’s writers to poke fun at whatever they recently watched on Turner Classic Movies. In the skits, the characters are mostly caricatures, while the jokes rarely stick. As a fan of classic movies, it’s a painful slog to watch, since there doesn’t seem to be much affection for the kinds of films it’s trying (and failing) to parody.

It’s only going to get harder for SNL writers to keep the slim goodwill this bit has. Three of the show’s recent alumni – writer Seth Meyers, performers Bill Hader and Fred Armisen – recently premiered the seven-episode debut season of Documentary Now! on IFC. (Lorne Michaels is another of the show’s executive producers, as is English comedian Rhys Thomas.) The show aims to satirize influential documentaries, although its approach isn’t much different from “Cinema Classics.” It has a host (Helen Mirren, playing herself) introducing the clips, as well as an introduction with soaring music that features excerpt of beloved non-fiction titles like Roger and Me, Salesman and Don’t Look Back. It’s a spot-on parody of the kind of movie broadcasts on television where a stuffy older person contextualizes a classic before the film plays.

An uninformed IFC watcher could be fooled into thinking they are in store for an actual program instead of a parody. Unlike the misguided SNL sketch, Documentary Now! aims to make the viewer laugh at form and content. The episodes are uncanny doubles to famous documentaries: the first season boasts near-replicas of Grey Gardens, Nanook of the North and The Thin Blue Line. If none of those titles mean anything to you, you’re not part of the show’s fragmented target audience.

The Grey Gardens parody, “Sandy Passage,” explores a mother and daughter living in a dilapidated country home. Hader is Litte Vivvy Van Klimpton (the film’s “Little Evie” Bouvier Beale surrogate), the camera-hogging sweetheart with an eccentric style of dressing and dancing. Armisen is Big Vivvy, mostly relegated to lounging in her bed and speaking in a stern tone. “Kunuk Uncovered,” the second episode is not so much a parody of Nanook of the North – revered as the first popular non-fiction film – but a parody of a documentary that looks back at that early film’s production and explores what the doc is now best known for: its various digressions from the truth. “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” is the show’s Thin Blue Line installment, a loopy murder mystery that doubles as a legal defense for a wrongfully accused man on death row.

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Documentary Now!‘s premiere season was made with much love and admiration for the form it’s aping, going so far as to mimic the logo to Janus Films, the distributor of many art-house classics, and feature an uncanny copy of Philip Glass’s score for its Thin Blue Line parody. Some of these jokes are very “inside baseball,” even for virulent cinephiles, but the show’s attention to meticulous detail is intricate and offbeat enough to warrant a second viewing. The nuanced, note-perfect parodies work primarily due to the performances. Hader and Armisen are two of Saturday Night Live’s most versatile performers, and that specialty is a major plus here. In “Sandy Passage,” the two men dress in outlandish garb but also manage to find the vulnerability in the outsider qualities of the Van Klimptons. This ensures their performances are more than just indelible impressions.

The short episodes mirror the style and structure of non-fiction films. (“Kunuk the Hunter” may be the easiest episode to start from, as the zooming into old photographs, reliance on talking heads and voice-over of handwritten letters are familiar aspects of many made-for-TV and educational docs.) Still, it would be unfair to label these episodes mockumentaries, since they so formidably pay tribute to the aesthetic and approach of non-fiction filmmaking. However, Documentary Now! is not merely satisfied with cleverly paying tribute to classic films. The stories in the 21-minute episodes all become more complex and have unpredictable twists, ones that would be sacrosanct to spoil.

The niche success of Documentary Now! isn’t a fluke. Earlier this year, Amy Schumer co-directed what is now widely considered the most innovative sketch to appear on her Comedy Central series. Running 19 minutes, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” formidably and faithfully mirrors much of the look, style and dialogue of the 1957 big-screen adaptation of 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet. Instead of debating whether a boy lives or gets the electric chair, the hotheaded jury argues over whether Schumer is hot enough to be on basic cable television. The choice is inspired: Hollywood boardrooms are still overwhelmingly male, so having nearly a dozen suited slobs harshly putting down female celebrities that don’t quite gel with their view of traditional beauty is cutting cultural commentary.

Beyond the timely satire, the attention to detail is exquisite. Director of photography Jonathan Furmanski (alongside Schumer and co-director Ryan McFaul) turns the smoky jury room into a near replica of the setting from Lumet’s film. The sketch also uses the same opening credits font and mirrors the blocking of the movie’s more heated scenes. (The 12 actors cast also resemble, although some more than others, the 1957 film’s cast.) Although running less than a fifth the length of its source material, the sketch hardly feels rushed. It breathlessly moves from one of the story’s most famous set pieces to the next, although instead of Henry Fonda whipping out a switchblade akin to the one used as evidence, John Hawkes slams down a dildo to stun his fellow jurors. Instead of Jack Warden’s belligerent baseball fan impatiently waiting to go to a game, actor Henry Zubrowski seethes as he hopes to make an Adam Levine-Blake Shelton concert.
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Those who have never seen the 1957 classic still have plenty to laugh at: Schumer and her entire writing staff, all of whom are credited, pack in fresh jokes about Jenny McCarthy, Kevin James and The Facts of Life. On a second viewing, I realized just how much the sketch had to do, balancing its look from a starkly different era with crass jokes that would be bewilderingly out-of-place in any variation of Reginald Rose’s play. While a few of the lines are copied verbatim from the original text, they don’t halt the flow of the comedy.

The success of Documentary Now! and “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” is unusual. Cinematic parody has taken a hit, thanks to the Seltzer-Friedberg atrocity factory (that produced such unwatchable grotesqueries as Epic Movie). Meanwhile, with so many humour websites getting hits with bite-sized sketches that poke fun at recent pop culture targets, prescient satire has mostly moved to the Internet. Nobody was asking for comedy sketches done in the mould of films a half-century-old, but the series’ dedicated creators took a risk alienating an audience and ended up with programs that could delight cinephiles.

Yet despite the seemingly esoteric appeal of these episodes, there are ties to contemporary times. “Kunuk Uncovered” explores how a praised non-fiction work was widely manipulated to look like authentic truth, a vital commentary on documentary practice (and news judgment) today. When “Sandy Passage” descends into a horror film near its conclusion, we realize the thin line between an odd 1970s non-fiction title and the now-ubiquitous found-footage genre. It is nearly impossible to watch “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” without thinking of the success of true-crime shows like The Jinx or the popular Serial podcast. Meanwhile, Schumer’s sketch reiterates how the major decisions in show business (and beyond) still belong to a jury of men with views cloistered in the 1950s. These are not mere pitch-perfect replications, but powerful satires. They’re pastiches with a purpose, although they resonate better if you’re in on the joke.

Review: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs will likely be one of the best plays you see all year, and you can do so for the cost of a movie ticket. Scribe Aaron Sorkin, adapting the bestselling biography of the Silicon Valley iconoclast by Walter Isaacson, structures the films around three of Jobs’ product launches. Each segment, which would be considered one act on the stage, follows Jobs (Michael Fassbender) as he consorts with the same four or five key players in his life – old friends and foes, a persistent Esquire reporter, the mother of his daughter fighting for a slice of his millions. It’s a compelling and confident, albeit convenient backstage drama – like Birdman without the virtuoso long takes, All That Jazz minus the heady razzle dazzle. It’s often thrilling, although one doubts Jobs had all of this time to talk over personal issues just minutes before gliding onstage to wow an audience.

It starts at the launch for the Macintosh, shortly after Apple showed off the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time. Despite a buzzed crowd filling into their seats, a small glitch with the model computer itches at the mogul and he cannot help but scratch. Jobs berates Mac teammate Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) for failing to get the demo into shape. He shrugs off the messages of marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and then tries to do the same with old creative comrade Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). He also has little time to be polite to former girlfriend Chrisann (a brittle Katherine Waterston) and her five-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss) – also a product of Steve’s but one he has little time for as he prepares to launch.

As depicted in this new film from Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs was an intelligent, verbose, irritating, high-energy man who is more perfectionist than, alas, a pragmatist. He was a ruthless man filled with regret and resentment. In other words, this Jobs is less a portrait of the technical genius than just another Aaron Sorkin character. Boyle is an expert at externalizing the feelings of his characters in nifty ways. Yet, despite the director’s eclectic filmography, he wasn’t the best choice for the overly talky Jobs, restricted by a minimum of sets and the long, Sorkinesque walk-and-talks. (One respectable choice: each segment is filmed on different stock – high-grain 16mm for the 1984 launch, then 35mm for NeXT, then flashy, luminescent digital alongside the colourful iMac – that ingeniously tracks the technological evolution.)

Steve Jobs is not even the first film released this year to capture its title subject. Documentarian Alex Gibney (Going Clear) had an essay film entitled The Man in the Machine, which studied the fascinating contradictions of the man who helped turned Apple into an orchard. In public at product launches, Jobs gleamed, guiding an audience into the ethos of his creations that made his computers and music players more than mere pieces of tech. In private, Jobs was a harsh team leader, emotionally obtuse to the wellbeing and contributions of his creative assistants. In comparison, Boyle’s film is limited to the stagy confines of its screenplay, unable to expose the same paradoxes with as much insight. We get a few hints of the CEO’s human side amidst his pre-show megalomania, although some of the tonal shifts are jarring, sending the character from frenzy to pity within a few lines of dialogue. Meanwhile, the few times the drama cuts into a flashback from the real-time momentum, the effect is unnatural.

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Thankfully, the cast does a fantastic job distracting us from the structural limitations. While hardly resembling Jobs, Fassbender is forceful and focused. The German-Irish actor nails the subtleties of the American’s soft lilt while also showing unrestrained braggadocio, chewing out friends and foes with Sorkin’s crackling turns of phrase. The rest of the ensemble does stellar supporting work, even if their characters seldom rise beyond their roles as sparring partners for the title character. Rogen is stellar as a wounded Wozniak and Winslet flints wonderfully as one of the only Apple executives who could tolerate the man at the top. Regardless, both actors give award-caliber turns for what are, inevitably, minor parts. Wozniak and Hoffman mainly exist to highlight Jobs’ friendship dalliances and commitment issues, while Jeff Daniels’ John Sculley is an obvious paternal substitute.

Sorkin aspires to hit the snap and sardonic wit of his screenplay for The Social Network, the wry, winning drama that won him an Oscar. However, to condense Jobs’ various struggles into story beats with beginnings, middles and ends, Sorkin is forced to fit in a lot of exposition into three situations, all playing out in real time. The film’s emotional core revolves around Jobs’ conflicted relationship with Lisa, the daughter he seldom sees but who wants him around. This conflict deserves its own film – and the three young actors in the role are at Fassbender’s level – but the compressed structure cramps the poignancy into easy, wishy-washy sentimentality. (When a certain emotionally charged moment registers before the first launch, we cannot help but expect the insight will return at a similar moment 14 years later.)

Sorkin nails the impetuousness of the title character, and Fassbender’s magnetic portrayal – filled with equal measures of rage and regret – is astounding: we sympathize with Jobs even as we spurn his behaviour. However, when the creator of hardware goes soft, the film falters. The Social Network never attempted to make us like Mark Zuckerberg, but Jesse Eisenberg brought shades of vulnerability to diversify his bristly performance. Fassbender could have done the same, if the story had more structural freedom. Steve Jobs is, ultimately, just like an Apple product: frequently engaging, cleanly designed, multitasking, fast and accessible. It’s also cluttered with too many tools fighting for space on a screen.

A Guide to Director Denis Villeneuve, Master of Despair

Near the beginning of the 2013 psychological thriller Enemy, Toronto university professor Adam (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) ends up chatting with another teacher in a staff room. Adam has had trouble sleeping, and his lectures about world history are delivered without the fire he once had. The teacher asks him if he goes out much. Upon Adam’s weary response, the staffer recommends he rent a movie. “I could go for something cheerful,” Adam replies.

That one line is as close as Enemy comes to making a joke. The film’s director, Québec native Denis Villeneuve, has found considerable success telling stories of uncompromising, nearly constant misery. Both inside and outside of his native land, Villeneuve tells stories about solitary protagonists going through unspeakably grim traumas. Given the similarities of many of the characters, it is also remarkable that none of his films feel derivative of previous works.

His breakthrough, Maelstrom, from 2000, is about a woman trying to recover from a traumatic ordeal, after she accidentally runs over a man with her car. Bibiane (Marie-Josée Croze in a stellar performance) is an entrepreneur whose life slowly unravels even before she hits the stranger. In a daze of grief, Bibiane freezes up when a photographer arrives to take her picture for a magazine profile. “I want you to become transparent,” the cameraman says. Of course, that doesn’t take much.

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Maelstrom is a gripping study of an apathetic, anxious and aggrieved young woman. When she walks around outside, Bibiane is downcast, numb to the commotion around her. Her blaring white apartment is a useful extension of character: when Bibiane gets up, the glare from the sun through the windows blinds the character, complementing her further isolation from ordinary feeling. To bring us into her state of mind, Villeneuve repeats certain sequences and adds out-of-context splices of the frenzy just outside Bibiane’s radar. We feel her continued alienation from the world, as she grasps for human connection.

Instead of wallowing in morbidity, though, the story feels entirely fresh. The film is narrated by a slimy, gutted fish that is a few gasps away from being sliced into someone’s meal– a touch reminiscent of fellow Canuck auteur David Cronenberg. Villeneuve consciously turns Bibiane into a creature gasping for air – just like that odd narrator. One motif in that 2000 film is the human insensitivity to death. This is most obviously represented with the butchered fish, but much is also made of the victim of the inciting incident not receiving a proper burial. That stands in stark juxtaposition to Incendies, the harrowing drama that brought Villeneuve worldwide attention from cinephiles, after it received an Academy Award nomination.

Based on a revered Quebec play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies focuses on two siblings, Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette). They want to bury their mother, Nawal, but her will has a clause attached. Nawal wants them to find their father – a man they do not know – and their brother, whom they didn’t know existed, and deliver to each of them a letter. She doesn’t want a burial until that task is complete. While Simon is in disbelief, Jeanne decides to return to the embattled Middle Eastern region where their mom used to live. She is a math professor who believes in certainty, but that is not a sure thing in solving the answer to two unknowns.

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Incendies is a drama of numbing stillness, taking place in a land that has been decimated by violence and now overflows with distress. Much of the film cuts between Nawal (played with bruised defiance by Lubna Azabal) as she experiences moments of deep pain, searching for the son she was forced to abandon, and Jeanne, who is forced to trudge the same path and search for similar answers. The drama examines the long-lasting, devastating effects of trauma on a character, her family and her homeland. Villeneuve’s film is filled with spurts of sudden, unrelenting violence, surrounded by harsh silence, of a place (and, alas, a family) coming to terms with unspeakable horrors.

Mouawad’s play consists of many poetic monologues from the Marwans. In contrast, Villeneuve’s film (that he adapted to the screen) abandons dialogue when it can. Instead, deafening silence rings out. Nawal and Jeanne both observe the despair around them and have little choice but react to decisions made beyond their control. Jeanne’s navigation of a distant land has much in common with another of Villeneuve’s protagonists, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), from his newest thriller, Sicario.

Kate is the audience’s entry point, a steely FBI agent traveling in a corrupt, drug-infested region who doesn’t quite know how to be useful. Distributor Lionsgate advertised the film as a gritty drug cartel thriller with a determined female at the helm – like if Clarice Starling muzzled her way inside a Cormac McCarthy novel. However, the film, written by Taylor Sheridan, does everything it can to undermine the protagonist’s power. Played by Blunt, the character is, itself, blunt in different ways: alert and aggressive on the force, while dulled into being a mere pawn of other government operations hunting down a notorious drug kingpin.

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Sicario boasts many of Villeneuve’s trademarks: a hollow, simmering score; prolonged silences to build suspense; shadowy shots behind the protagonist that often makes one uneasy; mysterious character motivations only revealed in the final act. That existential dread so inherent to Incendies recurs here: just as Jeanne is treated as a stranger in a strange land, Kate is uneasy around skirmishes in Texas and Mexico. This instability creates both tension and disbelief.

Less tense but equal in white-knuckle torment, Prisoners marked Villeneuve’s first big-budget Hollywood thriller. The dark, muted film was a mostly successful merge of mystery, revenge story and study of familial grief. The film’s two protagonists are both driven by a means to be good yet are haunted by the repercussions of their actions. The first is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a brusque, Bible-quoting family man determined to find his abducted daughter. The second is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), an investigator who has never missed a case now scrambling to figure out who abducted Dover’s girl and her friend who was also taken.

As the filmmaker’s other works explore one’s conditional relationship to death and violence, it makes sense that his first American film asks similar questions about moral responsibility – especially when Keller begins to torture the man he believes is the prime suspect, the meek Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Villeneuve doesn’t flinch when focusing on American hypocrisy – leads bungled by an under-staffed police department, the pulpy beatings of the story’s supposed hero, even an off-key rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Prisoners is as harsh and spare as Villeneuve’s other films, letting the dread mount without ever tipping too far into overwrought wallowing.

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If any film in Villeneuve’s oeuvre can be skipped, though, it is the weightless exploration of a heinous school shooting, based on true events. Considering the attention the French-Canadian director often gives to stories of terror and trauma, and his proximity to the 1989 massacre at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal, the miss is surprising. Polytechnique follows two fictional characters – one woman who is shot and injured, her male friend who becomes a bystander to the crime – and one real figure, the actual shooter. Filmed in stark black-and-white, the film is heavy with punishingly unnerving violence from the massacre itself, but light on any newfound insight or contemplation. Villeneuve dedicated the film to the victims, but it’s less a memorial than an empty exploitation, a wound that does little to help the healing.

In many ways, the film many viewers skipped is probably the director’s finest and most peculiar work. In Enemy, nothing one observes at face value is what it seems, and the story demands repeat viewings to connect the dots lingering just under the surface. (To say too much about the film however, would spoil the web of mystery the director and scribe Javier Gullón so masterfully spin.) Set in the dismal high-rises of Toronto, Enemy introduces us to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Adam, a history teacher unfulfilled with work, a romantic dalliance heading nowhere and a lack of purpose. Upon renting a film, he spots a face with an uncanny resemblance to his own: a perfect double named Anthony Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal). This doppelganger’s presence starts tearing at the protagonist’s fatigued psyche… and I will leave it there.

On the surface, Enemy seems like a genre throwback to the brainy, paranoia-related thrillers that were a dime a dozen around the turn of the millennium. Carve a little deeper into the character study and the director’s most common creative attributes are everywhere. You have a lonely outsider who doesn’t feel at home in contemporary society. You have the monochromatic colours and disorienting camera angles. You have the repressed trauma that returns in an unexpected way. However, Enemy is a thought-provoking integration of Villeneuve’s themes and techniques, manifested in a story world that feels distinctly original. (Also, Toronto has never looked so good, or so grim, on film.)

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Denis Villeneuve is undoubtedly one of contemporary cinema’s finest directors, and probably Canada’s most important filmmaker at the current moment. There may be nothing cheerful about his dramas, though, which are considerably hard to stomach. The lack of meaningful catharsis at the end of many of these titles could be seen as an affront to conventional narrative. However, his deep explorations of trauma, suffering and regret wouldn’t hold the same power with a weak, lighthearted conclusion. The director’s next two projects – the sci-fi drama Story of Your Life, with Amy Adams and Forest Whitaker, and the untitled follow-up to Blade Runner – will aspire to boast the same enveloping depth of character and theme while extending to a more fantastical realm.

Not To Be Missed: Enemy, Incendies, Sicario

Recommended: Maelstrom, Prisoners

Skip: Polytechnique

Review: The Walk

“The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium. He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.”

The above quotation comes from the middle of Let The Great World Spin, a deeply poignant 2009 novel from Colum McCann. The man described is Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker whose daring balancing act, on a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, was later described as the “artistic crime of the century.” McCann’s novel weaves through various plots, but the author uses Petit’s famous walk between the buildings as a connective element for his stories – all set during the summer of 1974, when he attempted the stunt. The wire that holds Petit is the same that harnesses together McCann’s New York stories.

McCann’s glorious, moving period piece manages to gather more feeling in Petit’s fear than two films adapted from the Frenchman’s 2002 book, To Reach the Clouds. The first, the insightful if overpraised Man on Wire, walked away with dozens of late-year awards in 2008, including the coveted Oscar for Best Documentary. The newest, The Walk, is a dizzying 3D spectacle from director Robert Zemeckis that aims to capture Petit’s landmark feat in motion. (Man on Wire has voice-over narration, photographs and news broadcasts to provide context of the event, but no video footage of the high-wire act.)

Just as the journey between the Twin Towers drew awe from spectators, Zemeckis hopes his re-enactment of the events will draw incredulous amusement and applause. (The film opened in IMAX theatres exclusively this week, and goes wider on Oct. 9.) The Walk aims to be both impressive and beautiful: the protagonist repeatedly utters that latter word throughout.

As Petit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perky and ostentatious even as he fumbles with a French accent. He narrates his story directly to the audience with a put-on-a-show gusto, perched in the Statue of Liberty’s torch as a digital New York skyline – with the twin towers front and centre – twinkles in the background. The effect recalls narration from a corny amusement park ride, to the point that moviegoers may expect their seats to start moving.

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That narration becomes a framing device for the character to bounce back and forth in time, while always ratcheting up excitement for the climactic finish. The Walk bolts through backstory, from Petit’s early promenade busking to training from a stoic mentor (Ben Kingsley, average) to the courting of the young Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, barely used). To compress these formative years, the screenplay from Zemeckis and Christopher Browne sometimes courts cliché, such as in one scene where an eight-year-old Petit gazes in awe at a circus tightrope walker. The spellbound boy sits alone in the tent after the spectators leave, still rapt.

However, The Walk knows that the stunt from the title is the primary attraction. Curiously, the film hits its stride during the thrilling second act, as Petit organizes a crackerjack team of accomplices – forgettable characters elevated by a good supporting cast, including James Badge Dale – to aid his death-defying act. Petit anxiously awaits his flight to New York and often tells the other characters to speak in English for practice, a clever way to keep subtitles off the screen. The conflicts between the Frenchman and his team, which were a key component of Man on Wire, though, are mostly absent. So is the concern for Petit’s life: even though the wire walker’s narration takes away much of the suspense of whether he lives or dies, there is a curious lack of antagonism to his dangerous idea.

Petit is persistent, but he’s also psychologically thin. Like Man on Wire, The Walk has curiously little to say about Petit’s upbringing. Both films do feature a moment when Petit wakes up in a daze to work on a wooden crate, which he calls a “coffin,” but that is about as far as both works go to explore his doubts about his high-altitude stunt. While Petit declares his mission for “anarchy in artistry,” Zemeckis and Browne never explore what made this seemingly invincible Frenchman want to tempt fate. Most of the time, he is a figure of boundless optimism.

The film has its best scenes mostly unencumbered by noise (and Gordon-Levitt’s sometimes enervating accented voice-over). In one, just before he lets go of the tower to start his walk, Petit imagines (and the audience sees) a misty fog that makes the busy city around him vanish. This moment offers a feeling of grandeur. (The Walk is also the rare Hollywood production to employ 3D properly. At one point, I ducked my head, so startled by Petit’s balance pole tumbling from his hands in a practice.)

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Nevertheless, the climactic set-piece that follows this beautiful moment never quite achieves the same sense of majesty. Small things tug at this big sequence, but they accumulate. The first crossing only lasts about a minute of screen time, a pace too nimble considering the distance between the towers and the 412 metre depths of this life-and-death scenario. Meanwhile, instead of letting us simply observe the incredible act, Zemeckis keeps cutting to police officers on their radios hoping that Petit steps onto the top deck. A digitally enhanced seagull that comes face to face with the walker only makes matters worse. In Man on Wire, one of Petit’s accomplices described the man’s face as an “ageless mask of concentration… like a Sphinx.” Gordon-Levitt’s face is too calm and expressionless, to the point that we’re never quite convinced he is 1,000 feet in the air, instead of in front of a green screen.

Despite its director’s dazzling intentions for the climactic sequence, The Walk doesn’t culminate with much excitement. There are thrilling elements within this finale – shots of awestruck New Yorkers gazing at Petit recall his reaction during the earlier circus scene – but they aren’t plentiful. Zemeckis is too eager to cut away from the rapturous sight, robbing the film of transcendental beauty. There is too much whimsy and too little wonder: we’re frequently aware of the movie magic employed to visualize this high-altitude stunt.

The drama is less an affirmation of the human spirit than of the beauty of the two towers central to Petit’s flight of fancy. It wasn’t long ago that Hollywood’s digital artists rushed to remove the sight of the World Trade Center buildings from their releases. Zemeckis never avoids the chance to make the towers the stars of the show. There is something truly buoyant about how the film works to reclaim the towers from the memories of their destruction, which still stings in our memories 14 autumns later. They’re the most remarkable visual effect in the film, and with the exception of a couple of moments where they look a bit too polished, one barely notices the figurative wires. Perhaps unintentionally, the buildings end up stealing the show from Gordon-Levitt. While The Walk is occasionally an impressive feat of filmmaking, it rarely approaches beauty.