Saturday, December 27, 2008

The View from the Tank Multi-Pak: Man on Wire (2008) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Man on Wire (2008)

A serviceable documentary, with its most beautiful moments coming at the very end. The film tells the tale of Frenchman Phillipe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. The film uses a generous amount of archival footage; much of this footage struck me as bizarre, as Petit, who was 24 in 1974, and his crew, seemed to have spent a lot of time filming themselves back in 1974, in France and in New York. There is a lot of footage, and a lot of photographs, of Petit and his buddies sitting around discussing the details of their plan, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, practicing on a tightrope in France, etc. Petit appears to have assembled a whole cast of characters around him back in the 70's (the scenes of his French training camp smack of a cult of personality) who followed him around and did his bidding to help him accomplish his artistic goals.

Speaking of Petit, who owns the lion's share of screentime in the film, 34 years later, he is still remarkably talkative and animated, but, listening to him go on and on about the 1974 event -- which was undoubtedly amazing -- you got a sense that the WTC tightrope walk was his greatest point, and he has spent the rest of his life reliving that youthful glory.

The film supplements its actual archival footage with many somewhat silly dramatic reenactments, which struck me as somewhat pointless and self-indulgent. Yes, it's sort of interesting that Petit got the idea to tightrope walk between the towers when he saw a picture of the yet-to-be-built towers in a magazine in a dentist's office -- but do we really care about the supposedly sleathy method by which he ripped out the picture from the magazine (by coughing as he ripped it out)? Yes, the planners had to wait for a long time in hiding in the WTC before they could get onto the roof -- but do we really need nearly an hour of detail about how Petit and his buddies had to wait in the dark for security guards to pass? All of these preliminaries feel a bit pointless and smug, and there's really little suspense in Petit's path to the top of the towers: we know they will make it, despite silly little run-ins with security guards, etc.

The film tries to portray the events leading up to the tightrope walk in the manner of a heist film, but that take on these events struck me as a little bit stupid and tedious. Yes, it was a big deal, but not that big a deal that we care about every single detail along the way. At a certain point, the film began to feel a bit like some kind of parody of the 9/11 Commission Report, with all of the excessive attention to how Petit and his crew got fake WTC id's, had a contact on the "inside", had scoped out the building ahead of time, etc.

None of this, however, can take away from the magnificence of the actual event itself, of Petit finally stepping out onto a wire strung between the Twin Towers and walking back and forth on that wire for 45 minutes. His performance, and the image he created through that performance, are revelatory and transcendent. So much so that it is easy to accept the answer Petit and his co-conspirators give after the police and the New York press ask them why they did it: "Why?," they answered, "There is no why." Two and a half tentacles.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Let me first say that I am very glad this movie was made. It will likely be an important historical artifact, giving the world a picture of India as it transitions from third world basket case to reclaim its position as an economic and cultural world power. The film also confronts Western viewers with shocking images of the staggering poverty that still exists -- in unimaginable scope -- in India, and that can only be an edifying and necessary thing.

However, I also have to say that I was not blown away by this movie -- and the overheated reviews had prepared me to be blown away. Boyle and his crew appear to have attempted to overwhelm the audience with sound and fury, with MTV/video-game cuts and editing, with hypersaturated colors, and a restless, roaming chronology. All of this in the service of a deeply traditional fairy tale story of love conquering all, and dreams coming true, etc.

Still, because of the stop-and-start nature of the narrative, the audience is not given any time to develop any interest in or feeling for the characters that are intended to play important emotional roles, mainly Jamel's (the main character) mother, and his life-long love, Latika. We never see much of an interaction between Jamel and Latika, only different chapters in their lives when Jamel meets her, tries to find her again, and later yet again. We never really see why he cares so much for her, besides the fact that she is beautiful. It's as if Boyle decided that we would in fact fill in the emotional gaps for the film, and supply the interest and sympathy, if he simply laid out the basic facts.

So ultimately, when Jamel does in fact win Latika back one final time, it feels a little flat, in addition to being wholly expected.

This film demands to be seen because it is so different in content, setting, characters, etc. than any other you will see this year. However, and a little sadly, it is not, to my mind, the life-changing epic that it has been made out to be. Gran Torino is still my pick for film of the year. Four tentacles.


Jose said...

couldn't disagree more with your review of man on wire (which we just saw two nights ago.) "serviceable" is just not very fair. i'm not sure what you were expecting that you were so disappointed. this, btw, is a good interview:

MK said...

Did you see Frank Rich's take on Slumdog Millionaire in his column last Sunday?

David said...

I really disagree re "man on wire". just saw it last night. I was fully gripped whistle-to-whistle in the same way I was for "touching the void". Both among the very, very best documentaries I'll ever see.

Frankly, I'm surprised this one didn't totally captivate you. Why is it a criticism to say that the WTC walk was probably the highpoint of his career/life? I think that's true, but that fact also lends so much pathos to the ending of the film.