The Walk review
The greatest artistic coup of all time
Past master filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’ newest motion picture probably won’t grow into a staple of pop culture that earlier films from his oeuvre became, but that doesn’t mean it lacks that Zemeckis quality. Back to the Future established the director’s skill in 1985 and somehow became more popular of an “eighties movie” than anything John Hughes made. In 1994, he made Forrest Gump for which he also won the Oscar for best achievement in directing. The film itself also won best picture, beating out Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. After the success of Cast Away in 2000, the filmmaker stuck to performance-capture animation projects like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. Zemeckis only make one live-action motion picture, 2012’s Flight, since he made two live-action movies fifteen years ago. In The Walk, Zemeckis took on a new cinematic challenge—recreating French performance artist Philippe Petit’s daring 1974 tight-rope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. While the film arguably wobbles on the narrative structure, Zemeckis’ brilliant camera-work for the wire walk scene coupled with a triumphant lead performance make The Walk a can’t-miss for audiences looking for something a little different from the average movie.
Zemeckis keeps up his pattern of working with top-tier talented actors as international superstar Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper, The Dark Knight Rises)plays the protagonist, Philippe Petit. Many know Petit for his famous World Trade Center wire walk, but the director looks at the events that led up to his monumental walk, as well. We meet Philippe as a struggling street artist, played with equal parts ambition and charm by JGL—he seems like an authentic Parisian. While Gordon-Levitt probably won’t see any awards nominations for his acting in The Walk, the actor’s dedication to his craft is undeniable on-screen. His natural stateside inflection vanishes in favor of his French persona. The actor even trained with Petit himself for eight days during pre-production to learn how to walk a tight-rope. Everything in this film rests on protagonist Petit, and Gordon-Levitt captures this in his tense, optimistic portrayal.
Unfortunately, the only error in Gordon-Levitt’s performance is at the fault of director Zemeckis. The film leans far-too-heavily on JGL’s narration as Petit. Throughout the film, the camera constantly cuts away from a scene to show the character standing on top of a building simply narrating what’s going through his mind. It’s surprising that a seasoned, Oscar-winning director chose to tell, not show. The film loses steam here because perpetually cutting away to a single person narrating at the camera amount to a near-documentary format—and if one’s going to watch a documentary about Petit’s walk, then why not just watch the documentary already out there, Man on Wire?
The supporting cast, however, appears to do not much beyond supporting. Everything in The Walk leads up to the titular stroll so Zemeckis avoids character development when it isn’t necessary. Only Petit receives a full character arc. Academy Award-winner Sir Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3, Hugo) pops in as Papa Rudy, a circus owner, for a few scenes as Petit’s mentor and tight-rope trainer. Kingsley grants the film some extra class, becoming the stern, knowledgeable teacher Philippe needs if he wants to succeed. Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey, Yves Saint Laurent) plays Petit’s first coconspirator and love interest, Annie. Despite Le Bon’s best effort to make Annie an interesting, engaging character, the writing simply doesn’t offer her much beyond that of what Nathan Rabin called a “manic pixie dream girl.” Annie only exists in the film to help Petit grow and carry out his dream. The only time Annie does something independent of Philippe’s influence happens when she plays guitar for a gathered crowd until the protagonist arrives with his thrilling exhibition to steal her audience. Character actor James Badge Dale (The Lone Ranger, World War Z) also cameos as J.P., another one of Petit’s coconspirators. J.P. is one of the first people Philippe meets in New York City and the team appreciates his city-savvy as well as his ability to speak fluent French.
The film’s true highlight is the remarkable wire-walking sequence. Zemeckis and company reconstructed the top two stories of the twin towers with a wire across it inside a soundstage to shoot the captivating sequence. Yes, the heist of setting up the wire has expertly-crafted suspense on par with Ocean’s Eleven, but the wire-walk scene looks like nothing ever-before-seen in a major motion picture. In fact, the added 3D effect creates an experience not unlike 3D rides at amusement parks. Zemeckis recreates all 1,362 feet of the twin towers so skillfully that the 3D effect has felt real enough to provoke vertigo and even vomiting as several moviegoers have gone on record.
Despite not making huge waves in the movie industry over recent years, director Robert Zemeckis proves he still has the ability and desire to tackle a filmmaking challenge. Although carrying a questionable approach to storytelling and a few underdeveloped characters, The Walk still emerges as one of the most inspirational films in recent memory. Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows us why he’s still an in-demand star with unmistakable leading man charisma throughout as a hard-working and fun-loving artist. The climactic wire walk sequence beckons viewers to buy a 3D ticket if they can stomach the spectacle.