“Skywalkers: A Love Story” lends new meaning to the words “high anxiety.” It’s a documentary set in the world of rooftoopers, the new generation of daredevils who scale the tallest buildings they can find, climbing to the tips of skyscrapers and posting top-of-the-world footage of themselves on social media. Directed by Jeff Zimbalist (a former rooftopper himself), the film is brilliantly edited, and it’s full of amazing, terrifying, transfixing verité shots of figures walking on girders, sprawling on ledges, and scaling the spindly, often curved spires that shoot out of the tops of buildings, consisting up close of ladders in the form of precarious slats.
The movie puts us right up there with these outlaw thrill-seekers, and even if you don’t happen to possess a fear of heights, the images are so vivid in their vicarious immediacy that you may tilt your head ever so slightly one way or another, trying to keep “yourself” from falling. If you do have a fear of heights (Exhibit A: this critic), the film exerts a hold-onto-your-armrest terror and exhilaration. Most of the sky-high footage was shot by the climbers themselves, using mounted cameras, drones, and selfie sticks, and the images have a dizzying wide-angle clarity that only heightens the “Woah!” factor of it all.
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And yet if that’s all there was to “Skywalkers,” the film wouldn’t hold us the way it does. As the title indicates, this is also a love story, one that plays out in the very act of climbing. The film follows the saga of two rooftoppers from Moscow, Vanya Beerkus and Angela Nikolau, who survey each other’s feats with a kind of wary rivalry, then meet up and become a team, flying around the globe to seek out buildings in cities from Paris to Bankgkok, then find their partnership turning romantic, only to edge into the breakup zone. The movie is “When Vanya Met Angela Met Vertigo.”
What brings “Skywalkers” to cathartic life is that it’s rooted in the dance of two powerful personalities. What draws them together — their impulse to elevate risk into a kind of controlled madness, to turn rooftopping into an art form — is, at the same time, what tears them apart. The very nature of this kind of climbing, which tends to be a criminal activity (trespassing and worse, especially when it’s done in certain Asian countries), is that it’s so fearlessly and recklessly independent. It’s like mountain climbing with an anti-social edge. “Skywalkers” is a movie about balancing on the tips of man-made mountains of steel and glass, but it’s also about trust, desire, dread, and transcendence.
Vanya Beerkus and Angela Nikolau are born documentary movie stars. When we meet Vanya, in the mid-2010s, he’s the champion rooftopper of Russia, someone who has scaled every building, and done it by treating it as his mission. His slightly skewed handsomeness radiates his monomaniacal devotion. Angela treats climbing in a more poetic way. She’s the only woman among the rooftoppers of Moscow (they don’t want to let her into the club), and she carves out her own feminine style of bravery, capturing herself in gymnastic poses more than a thousand feet in the air. Her backstory is a piece of romantic poetry: Her parents were circus trapeze artists, and the vision of them in the air seared itself into her imagination. But then her father abandoned them, and her mother sunk into a depression. In becoming an acrobatic rooftopper, she’s trying to keep the flame of her parents’ love alive. With her dark eyebrows, popping eyes, and upside-down smile, Angela is like a Russian Olsen sister: delicate but fierce.
We watch these two climb many buildings together, which becomes their livelihood. Vanya already has a legion of Instagram followers and the sponsors that come with it. He’s a social-media star. But all that comes crashing down during the pandemic. Then the war in Ukraine results in a Russian shutdown of social media. Their stardom is choked off, and so is the trust that built it.
But Vanya gets the idea of how to revive it all. They will scale the Merdeka 118 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a building that is just being completed, so the security-camera system isn’t in place yet. It’s a razory blue sculpture of 118 stories, with a spire that shoots up 150 feet from there. If they’re caught in the act of climbing it, they will go to prison for a long time. To top off the feat, when they reach the apex they’ll lay a girder across the hole at the center of the spire, and Vanya will stand atop that girder, surrounded by a plunging void, and hold Angela up to the sky as she extends her body in the “swan” position. Can you say: Don’t try this at home times a million?
Like many moviegoers, I was enthralled by the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” about Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. To me, though, there was a frustrating oddity at the center of the movie. The whole thing built toward Petit’s jaw-dropping walk, yet when it finally happened…no one was there to capture it on film! We had to experience it all through still photographs. Couldn’t Petit and his team have brought a 16mm camera along?
It’s astonishing that his historic walk was never documented with moving pictures, and “Skywalkers,” in its way, rectifies that omission. It delivers the catharsis of immersing us in every unfolding moment of Vanya and Angela’s daring. This is a movie made to be seen in theaters, destined to excite audiences as surely as “Free Solo” did. Like “Man on Wire,” it’s also a kind of heist thriller (the only way they can get inside the Merdeka is to climb around a stadium, go through a half-built mall, walk a bridge into the skyscraper, and then ascend). Once they’re climbing up the stairs they get spotted, so they have to hide in a concrete nook for more than 20 hours.
By the time they’re ready to come out of that cave, Angela is exhausted, with a pounding headache, and she’s already recovering from an arm injury. This does not seem like a setting for triumph; it looks like a recipe for disaster. But what the climb of the Merdeka is really about is whether Angela can bring herself to count on a man she thinks, in her proud heart, will not be there for her. The film’s exhilaration is that it shows you, through its dangling-from-a-steel-beam footage, what love really is: scaling the heights of devotion, no matter how perilous, without a net.
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