Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Premise: Based on a true story. In 1974 French high wire performer Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) schemes to string a rope between the two towers of the World Trade Center.
What Works: Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis began his career as a protégé of Steven Spielberg, helming movies that Spielberg produced such as Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Like his mentor, Zemeckis has a similar storytelling sensibility and a knack for using cutting edge filmmaking technology. But Zemeckis has been more experimental than Spielberg, especially in his storytelling, and he has made movies that involved some creative risks such as the motion capture animation of The Polar Express and the singular cast of Castaway. The Walk is a bit more conventional insofar as it’s a straightforward narrative told with flesh and blood actors. However, the movie puts Zemeckis’ talent as a filmmaker on full display. The Walk has some innovative filmmaking choices, especially in the way that the picture is edited together. The final portion of The Walk, in which Philippe Petit finally performs his high wire act, involves some extraordinary special effects but in way that is not ostentatious. The filmmakers recreate the 1974 New York skyline and conjure an entirely convincing impression that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is actually 1300 feet in the air. The impact is harrowing and anyone with even the slightest acrophobia is going to find this thrilling and nauseating. Aside from the technical craft of this movie, The Walk is also notable for its sense of fun. Zemeckis’ movies often have a wicked sense of humor and The Walk has a light touch throughout while never diluting the stakes of this stunt. Although The Walk exists for the purpose of recreating Petit’s high wire performance, the story is well structured. The film opens with Petit’s backstory which gives the audience some insight into his obsessions and personality and his desire to put on a show. The middle of the movie involves Petit and his allies planning the stunt and this portion of the story plays like a heist movie and in many respects it’s the most fun. The first two portions of The Walk lead nicely into the climax in which the preparations and backstory payoff.
What Doesn’t: Frenchman Philippe Petit is played by American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Whenever Americans do a French accent it always sounds like a parody; even though Gordon-Levitt does the French accent in a way that sounds like the real life person he is portraying there is something inherently silly about that accent coming out of the mouth of a familiar American actor. The Walk utilizes a lot of narration, some of which is delivered through cut-ins in which Petit addresses the camera while standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. The symbolism is nice (the statue was the work of a French sculptor and it symbolizes the hope of immigrants who come to the United States in search of fame and fortune) but the narration is contrived and sometimes obnoxious and frequently spells out what is obvious to the viewer. Because Petit narrates throughout the movie it is obvious that he is going to succeed or at least not kill himself in the stunt. That diminishes the gravitas and begs the question hanging over this movie. Like similar pictures such as Everest, in which people deliberately endanger their lives but for no tangible reason, the movie needs to create some justification for it and “because it’s there” doesn’t cut it. In The Walk it is clear that Petit wants the glory of being the one person who has tight-roped between the Twin Towers. The visceral thrill the movie’s climax is reason enough to justify its existence but in the end this stunt affirms little else.
Bottom Line: The Walk is a fine piece of filmmaking. The movie is both fun and thrilling but this is the kind of motion picture that will be best seen in a theater with as big a screen as possible. The impact of The Walk will be greatly diminished when it is viewed on home video.
Episode: #567 (November 1, 2015)