As we enter October, we are beginning to see the first wave of Hollywood prestige pictures arriving at our local cineplexes, all with the purpose of either getting a head start on awards season buzz or just hoping to be a big enough draw to become a box office hit. This October, we’ve got some of Hollywood’s most notable filmmakers all releasing their newest features in a jam packed couple of weeks, and in some cases in direct competition with one another. This proved to be a dilemma for me, because even though I knew that I wanted to write a review for all of you this week, I didn’t exactly know until yesterday what it would be. Certainly the big draw this weekend will be Ridley Scott’s new space-based adventure The Martian, which is already earning some outstanding reviews, but the local L.A. theaters near where I live gave me another movie option to choose from. In certain IMAX theaters across the country, they are presenting an advance showing of Robert Zemeckis’ new big screen extravaganza The Walk, and fortunately one of those theaters is near me. So, given two very promising options to choose from, it ultimately came down to a coin flip, and The Walk won out. In the end, I think that this probably ended up being a better option to review. For one thing, I get to review a movie that is not yet available everywhere, thereby giving you my readers a good early impression of a coming attraction, and secondly, after spending the last two fall seasons reviewing space themed movies like Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014), it was probably time to review something else out of a different genre. So, let’s talk about The Walk.
This is the second film in director Robert Zemeckis’ thankful return to live action film-making, after spending much of the 2000’s dabbling in motion capture animation with The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). After earning raves for his live action film Flight (2012), Zemeckis needed a story that appealed to his epic and sometimes unconventional tastes as a follow-up. He managed to find that story in the true life tale of legendary tightrope walker Philipe Petit. Petit gained notoriety in the 1970’s for his larger than life personality and his death defying stunt work, much of which he did illegally. Trained for years in the circus, Petit later performed on the streets of Paris before getting the idea to walk a tightrope in some of the most dangerous places possible. A successful walk across the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral on his tightrope turned him into an international celebrity, but he felt that he didn’t command enough respect in his native France, so he sought to take his act on the road and find an even greater place to hang his wire. And that place turned out to be the newly opened Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. And that journey to that fateful walk between the towers became the inspiration for this particular film. Adapted from Petit’s own memoir, “To Reach the Clouds,” The Walk tells the story of how Petit’s monumental stunt came to be and what was involved with pulling it off, and it’s a story that is comfortably within Robert Zemeckis’ range as a storyteller. It’s epic, it’s colorful, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and most importantly it’s just fun to watch.
The story is told entirely from Petit’s point of view, with the man himself (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with an over the top French accent) addressing the audience directly. This first hand account helps to drive the tone of the movie, which like Petit is energetic and unpredictable. We see his early life as a street performer, walking tightrope on the streets of Paris to the amusement of passers-by. There he meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) who would become the love of his life and the first accomplice in his greatest stunt, the walk between the towers, which he keeps referring to as “the coup.” For years, he plans out the monumental walk, gathering more accomplices along the way including mathematician Jeff (Cesar Domboy) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony). Once the Towers are finished being constructed, Philipe makes his way to New York and covertly takes notes on every aspect of the building, making sure that every safety measure is taken before he makes his walk, something he learned from his longtime mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). In New York, he gains the help of more accomplices like J.P. (James Badge Dale) and Albert (Ben Schwartz) and has everything he needs to pull off his stunt. The remainder of the film follows Philipe and his team as they put the plan into motion, trying to have everything go off without a hitch. Much of the drama of the movie’s latter half comes from all the unexpected roadblocks that get in the way, including nearly getting caught by security and almost losing the wire when one of their support lines breaks. Not to mention all the death-defying prep work that they must do on the edge of what was at the time the tallest structure in the world. All this leads to a tense and harrowing road to the titular walk between the towers.
The Walk does an excellent job of dramatizing this true life event, but it’s not entirely a perfect adaptation either. Perhaps part of the reason why this movie didn’t grab a hold of me as strongly as I hoped is because I had already seen the Oscar-winning documentary called Man on Wire (2009), which told the exact same story as this film. Because of the documentary, I already knew where the story was going to go, which took some of the tension away from my experience watching this movie. But, at the same time, if someone were to watch this movie without knowing what happens, they’ll probably be on the edge of their seats because this movie does indeed do an effective job of laying out the stakes involved. I think my bone of contention comes from the contrasting depictions of the event from both movies. They both do a great job of showing all the details that went into Philipe Petit’s walk, giving the story a very heist movie feel to it. Unfortunately, the cinematic treatment feels more superficial in comparison, with the all embellishments becoming far more apparent and distracting as the story unfolds. The Walk works at it’s best when it doesn’t try to show off how clever it can be and just let’s the story take hold on it’s own. Now, using the embellishments may be an intentional choice on the filmmakers part, because the story is told solely from the perspective of it’s protagonist, something the documentary didn’t have as it used multiple accounts to tell it’s story. That helps to make the cinematic excesses feel somewhat less intrusive, since it’s clear that Zemeckis wants the audience to see the experience from his main character’s sometimes boastful perspective. But, even still, I felt that some of the cinematic flourishes reduced the tension in the story, which the documentary better conveyed overall.
But, in the end, it becomes a minor nitpick in an over effective movie. One of the film’s best strengths is the direction of Robert Zemeckis. Over his long and productive career, Zemeckis has become a master of blending drama and comedy together in his movies, and making both work to the story’s advantage. He’s also been a director who has loved to push the medium of film further, trying out new techniques in camera work and visual effects, such as blending Live Action with Animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) or digitally inserting Tom Hanks into old news reel footage in Forrest Gump (1994); and let’s not forget that he changed cinema forever with a little trilogy of films called Back to the Future. One of the reasons why I’m not as enthusiastic about his years in motion capture animation is because it took away some of the creativity from Zemeckis’ style away, as he no longer was bound to the constraints that the medium of film had put on him, and had forced him to be creative in order to overcome them. Now that he’s returned to live action, the old rebellious Zemeckis is back, and his visual flair is just as strong as it was back in his heyday. There are plenty of neat little ideas that he plays with in this movie, like showing a passage of time in Philipe’s training through the visual of his tightrope getting thinner with every step he walks across it. Plus, Zemeckis keeps the tone light throughout, with Petit’s grandiose personality driving much of the tone. It never gets too serious and much of the movie’s entertainment comes from it’s sense of humor. Much like it’s subject, the movie has to keep a tight balance between it’s tense, action packed moments and it’s lighter comical tone, and Zemeckis proves to be a perfect match for this kind of project.
One thing that could prove difficult for audiences is the character of Philipe Petit himself. Let’s just say subtlety is not one of the words you would use to describe the man. He’s impulsive, confrontational, stubborn, but also something of a hero as well. He manages to inspire the support of his friends, while at the same time driving them crazy with his seemingly death wish-like zealotry towards his mission. This is largely reflected in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance, which may be grating for some viewers. Gordon-Levitt, who is not French, speaks throughout the movie in a very thick accent that may or may not make some people believe he is overacting in an embarrassing way. I, however, didn’t mind his performance, because I think that his work here is meant to be over-the-top on purpose as a reflection of the real life Philipe Petit. For those of you who have seen Man on Wire, you’ll know that Philipe has a very explosive personality and is certainly a show off. I think that’s what Joseph Gordon-Levitt wanted to capture in his performance and it works to the advantage of this movie. Philipe may be an obnoxious nut, but he’s a lovable nut too. What matters is that you want him to succeed, and the movie does an excellent job of getting us on his side. In that respect, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wacky performance is exactly what is called for, and he manages to carry the film as a result. His works is also grounded by an able supporting cast. I particularly like the subplot involving Cesar Domboy’s Jeff, who’s fear of heights is challenged greatly by Philipe’s mission. Overall, Gordon-Levitt’s Philipe Petit fits right in line with many of Robert Zemeckis’ other larger than life characters, and becomes a hero worth rooting for, even while he spends the whole movie breaking the law.
But, of course, this wouldn’t be a Zemeckis film unless it had a sense of scale to it. And where The Walk really shines is in it’s visuals. The movie was shot in 3D, which does help enhance the experience in some ways, but the movie can still hold up in 2D as well, thanks to a strong visual presentation throughout. Shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean), the movie is very colorful and does an effective job of establishing the sense of place within the movie, especially when capturing the look of the 1970’s time period. Of course, the biggest challenge of the movie is getting the high wire walk itself to look just right. One of the movie’s best achievements is recreating the Twin Towers themselves, which almost becomes a character in their own right; a mighty and unpredictable beast that our hero must conquer. Because of the attacks on 9/11, the towers no longer exist today, so the entire location of the film’s climax had to be recreated from scratch, and amazingly, with the help of practical sets and visual effects wizardry, the Twin Towers come alive again in this movie. Not only does the movie authentically make you feel like you are there, but the size and scope of the setting also really enhances the experience of seeing Philipe make his walk across his wire. I especially like the moments when the camera glides overhead, showing us something that only Philipe would have seen during his stunt and that’s the precipitous space in between the towers, which he refers to as “the void.” And that visual of the void is one of the things that really makes the 3D experience worth it. It’s a great triumph of epic film-making when you make a moment like that work in your movie, and it’s one of the advantages that this film has over the documentary.
So, in conclusion, I would say that The Walk is a worthwhile movie experience, even if it’s not a perfect one. It does hold up within the Robert Zemeckis filmography with it’s delightful blend of humor and tense drama, and it doesn’t try to make itself feel more important than it should, which is refreshing for a Hollywood prestige picture. It may not be as laugh-out-load funny as Back to the Future, nor as emotional as Forrest Gump or Cast Away (2000), but it’s a worthy product from one of Hollywood’s great masters. And being in a monumental year for the filmmaker, given that Back to the Future (1985) is reaching it’s 30th anniversary, this movie helps to re-confirm that Zemeckis is still going strong all these years later. The only thing that could have been more perfect is if the movie was released on October 21 this year, since that’s the date featured in the fictional future from Back to the Future Part II (1989), but I guess that would have been too much of a nerdy expectation to hold the director to. For what it is, The Walk is an invigorating movie experience that does an adequate job of depicting a remarkable human achievement and the steps it took to pull that event off. If you want a more in depth look into the story, I recommend watching the documentary Man on Wire, which gives you more perspective from everyone involved. But, to get a sense of what it was actually like to be on the wire itself, then you’ll get a magnificent experience out of this as well, which treats the subject with as much attention to detail that a good movie can. If it’s at your local IMAX screens right now, then I highly recommend that you check this out, but if you have to wait another week, I hope that this review has been helpful in convincing you to check it out. If you see it, find the biggest screen possible, because this is one movie that uses every inch to it’s maximum.