Movie Review: The Walk
(Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)
For the last 30 years, director Robert Zemeckis has been one of the less-talked-of filmmakers who has helped push the boundaries of visual effects in film.
Michael J Fox had dinner with himself several times in the Back to the Future films, the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact moved its camera into places and realms many could only imagine, and even motion-capture’s progress owes some gratitude to the three mo-cap productions Zemeckis directed (The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol).
Following his return to live-action filmmaking with 2012’s film Flight, some wondered just where the director would go…and like some of his film’s subjects, he’s chosen to dash back to the past…and to a rather astounding feat of daring.
After the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in 2001, many often thought back on the times when they dominated the skyline at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. However, months before they were completed in 1974, a foreigner had his eye on them, as they were going up…his name, was Philippe Petit.
A street performer and high-wire walker from France, Philippe had gained notoriety for performing non-sanctioned tight-rope walks above Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but his dream was to perform the same feat, between the Twin Towers in New York.
One theme of Zemeckis’ works that has often matched up with those of his friend and mentor, Steven Spielberg, is that many of their films are grounded in the stories of ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The Walk seems to fit the bill, also becoming the first adaptation of real-life events the director has put to film. Even in the naming convention, his lead character is rather interesting. Much like the strangely-prophetic last names of the characters Ellie Arroway and Chuck Noland, Philippe Petit’s name almost seems to foretell of his scale amidst this enormous undertaking.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe, who serves double-duty, by also being a narrator for the film. Throughout the piece, we see Philippe narrating from atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, with the New York City skyline in the background, reflecting different moods as he tells his story.
Along for “The Coup,” are Philippe’s friends Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy), and Americans J.P. (James Badge-Dale), Albert, (Ben Schwartz), David (Benedict Samuel), and inside-man, Barry Greenwood (Steve Valentine).
With a line-up like this, The Walk could definitely be considered a heist film (and there are certain tense moments where it feels like one), but there’s no malicious intent or blackmail to be found: just a crazy Frenchman with an even crazier dream.
Most of the cast is largely given a task (or personality trait), and sticks to it. Though much like her real-life counterpart, Le Bon’s Annie is a bit of an enigma. Even in the Man on Wire documentary that told of the event, she just seems to be a presence that comes and goes into Petit’s life. Whether she had romantic feelings or felt something more for him, is largely left up to our own speculation.
Gordon-Levitt’s role as Petit can be a little trying, as he often seems to only answer to himself, and expects others around him to respect him, let alone listen and agree with what he says. I feel the audience may find themselves walking a tightrope as well regarding this character. Though the filmmakers strive to find some humor in his madness, it rarely felt that one could ever feel fully comfortable with his mindset a lot of times.
The film also attempts to ‘ground’ Philippe a bit, by creating the fictional character of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a Czech circus performer who allows him to learn some of his secrets. Though Petit in some interviews claimed he self-taught himself wire-walking, Papa Rudy feels moreso like a character to make the rather brash young man seem humbled, as well as walk the audience through some of the intricacies of wire-walking.
Of course, what will mostly be talked about afterwards, will probably be the towers themselves. Much like how James Cameron resurrected the Titanic, Zemeckis has made the structures live and breathe once again. People come through its revolving doors, head up into its structure via wood-paneled elevator cars, drive delivery vans into its sub-basements, and much more. Though unlike the Titanic, the film doesn’t take us all over the structure, but just where we need to tell the story.
Though footage was shot of Philippe from both of the towers, and from the ground, there was nothing Petit shot himself, perched 1,350 ft above the ground (GoPro cameras were not an option in 1974).
In this way, The Walk seems to base its existence on what visual effects could bring to Philippe’s stunt: what if the camera could be out there with him, peering down over the wire, experiencing what he did, during his 8 walks across the span?
This is the area where the film really shines. We get the visuals of clouds slightly obscuring Philippe’s view, the sunrise bathing the city in an orange glow, and much more that could only be experienced by few so early in those mornings, so high up.
The film also takes advantage of the “in-your-face” technique of 3-D a few times as well, though I think it works decently here, as I and several around me reacted to the mood the filmmakers were trying to convey.
Only a handful of films formatted into IMAX 3D have made me want to put down money for the experience, and The Walk was one of them. Though sadly, my hope for total immersion on the IMAX screen, did not come to pass with the film’s formatting, which only filled 2/3 of of its square-ish shape.
Even at 2 hours and 3 minutes, it feels like there’s about 15 minutes of scenes that could have been excised, mostly some with some rather saccharine lines of dialogue (notably in the aftermath of the walk). As well, the characters often tell the others to ‘speak in English,’ saying the purpose is to get accustomed to speaking properly when they get to America, but I feel moreso for the slower members of the audience to not have to deal with reading subtitles too often.
Make no mistake: The Walk is a film that was meant to be seen on a large-screen, just like films such as Titanic, Interstellar, and many others. However, its overall story may feel like a slog, to get to the money-shots that its publicity materials drew you in with.
Final Grade: B- (Final Thoughts: Robert Zemeckis shows us that his talents to recreate the past and delve into the visual effects toolbox are still alive and well with “The Walk.” Its story about a man who ‘dared to dream’ is definitely a spectacle once the the film gets to its third act, though the audience may grow weary on the pacing of Philippe Petit’s story, as it seems the talkative narrator wants to be sure he doesn’t leave out any little detail in the tale of his daring “coup.”)