Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Produced by Tom Rothman, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, and Jack Rapke. Written by Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne. Release date: September 30, 2015 (IMAX); October 9, 2015 (Wide).
Back in 1974, a man named Philippe Petit did something that very few would even dream of: he hung a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and walked across it – doing so several times before eventually stopping and getting arrested by the NYPD. The charges were dropped, and the world was in awe. In 2008, a fantastic documentary directed by James Marsh called Man on Wire was released and told the story of this walk. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Documentary Feature, and for good reason: it’s an incredibly enjoyable film. The Walk is Hollywood’s attempt at a narrative-driven retelling of the events.
Petit is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who reportedly learned fluent French and more or less captures the accent with which Petit speaks English. The first hour or so of The Walk shows how Petit began his high-wire walking, the way the fixation on the Twin Towers grew, and how he met Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), two people instrumental in the shaping of his life. It’s a slow burn, but the energy and charisma with which Gordon-Levitt performs keeps it fun enough that it doesn’t feel like a slog.
It’s after we set the stage, though, that we get to the meat of The Walk. Given that the Twin Towers were still under construction at the time, and that hanging a wire between them and walking on it is illegal, a plan had to be hatched (“the coup”) in order to do so without attracting attention – at least, not before the high-wire act began. It’s staged like a caper movie, with the locations being scouted, a team being brought together, and, finally, the execution. While it’s not as thrilling as, say, one of the two good Ocean‘s movies, it’s pretty darn fun.
Since The Walk is based on a true story, you know how it ends. It’s not about the destination, but the journey, although I’d like to talk about the former for a second. The Walk contains some of the most vertigo-inducing shots I’ve ever seen at the movies. When Petit is walking between the towers, we get some shots looking directly down, and it feels very much like we’re watching a direct reenactment. While these scenes were shot on a soundstage, the special effects used to render New York City, at least from a distance, are tremendous. This usage is a textbook example of some of the greatest, but subtle, CGI. You wouldn’t be able to tell, and that’s what makes it work.
It’s thrilling, tense, often gorgeous, incredibly amiable, and a relatively faithful retelling of the true story.
One interesting decision made by the filmmakers is to have Petit narrate the story, although not just through voice-over. We get several shots of him breaking the fourth wall, acting as an omnipotent figure, as he hangs out on the Statue of Liberty. If you don’t know Petit’s story, you may perhaps think that he’s in this position because he fell, and is now dead, and is recounting his tale to us from the grave. But, alas, it’s just a way to get the audience inside his head, immediately introduce us to his charm, and perhaps lazily figure out a way to directly tell us things that the filmmakers didn’t want to show. Narration is almost always like this, but this isn’t anywhere close to the most painful use of the technique.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt effortlessly becomes Philippe Petit. His performance is so good that his initially annoying accent – one that’s far more accurate than you may expect – becomes part of the charm. He is a likable guy, someone who will make you feel like you can’t give up on your dreams, no matter how unlikely they may seem at becoming a reality. Charlotte Le Bon is lovely as a foe turned ally, and some of the film’s best scenes involve the play between her and Gordon-Levitt. Ben Kingsley plays Petit’s mentor, while several actors – Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Steve Valentine, and James Badge Dale, among others – show up as Petit’s helpers. Everyone’s good, although it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt who steals the show in every scene.
When not directing creepy uncanny valley CGI efforts, Robert Zemeckis, who directed and co-wrote The Walk, actually has quite an impressive track record. Zemeckis is the man behind the Back to the Future trilogy, Flight, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Used Cars – who wouldn’t want that filmography? He adds another solid addition to his resume with The Walk. It’s thrilling, tense, often gorgeous, incredibly amiable, and a relatively faithful retelling of the true story. Is it as good as Man on Wire? No, but it’s close enough that it’s well worth seeing.
Bottom Line: A great rendition of a true story, The Walk is wonderful cinema.
Recommendation: While Man on Wire is better, and if you can only see it or The Walk, it’s the one to see, The Walk is absolutely worth seeing.[rating=4]