The Walk is an entertaining and often thrilling piece of storytelling, in addition to being an impressive display of 3D filmmaking.
The Walk stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, a French street artist who becomes obsessed with tightrope walking at a young age. Philippe hones his craft under the guidance of the experienced high-wire performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), before setting out to “hang his wire” in a variety of challenging and dangerous locations – sometimes illegally, if need be. However, after seeing an image of the mid-construction World Trade Center, Philippe decides that his dream is to perform the artistic “coup” of the century: walking a high-wire strung between the Twin Towers.
Philippe, with assistance from his friends and fellow artist/lover Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), travels to 1970s New York to fulfill his dream, along the way picking up additional “accomplices” who help him scope out the World Trade Center and plan their operation ahead of time. However, as Philippe’s date with destiny approaches, even he begins to wonder if the crazy idea is truly feasible… and if his most ambitious high-wire walk yet will also be his last one.
The true story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers (back in 1974) was previously brought to cinematic life with the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. The Walk‘s Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis – whose iconic filmography includes Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump – avoids merely rehashing what Man on Wire did with Petite’s story by instead framing the tale as a contemporary larger-than-life fable, told by Petit himself (whose energetic narration throughout the film works more often than it does not, taken on the whole).
Zemeckis and his script co-writer Christopher Browne’s screenwriting approach, in turn, elevates The Walk beyond a re-enactment of Petit’s grand “coup” and transforms it into a Big Fish-esque parable about the American dream – one that doubles as a refreshingly subtle (and even touching) ode to the World Trade Center and what it symbolized, through the eyes of Petit. The Walk often strives to hit the same polarizing notes of whimsy as previous Zemeckis movies have (Forrest Gump, in particular) – sometimes to better effect than others, while examining Petit’s “origin story” during the narrative’s first act. However, once the plot moves further into heist genre territory (similar to Man on Wire before it) during its second act (and the setting shifts from France to the U.S.), The Walk really – pardon the pun – hits its stride.
Unsurprisingly, it’s The Walk‘s third act that really impresses, as Petit’s famous “walk” brings both his personal journey and the overall film to a climax that’s both nerve-wrackingly exciting and thematically satisfying, at once. Zemeckis and director of photography Dariusz Wolski (the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Prometheus) use immersive camera angles and shots to powerful effect throughout the movie – pulling viewers deeper into Petit’s fast-moving and colorful world – yet it’s with the setup and execution of Petit’s Twin Tower “walk” that the movie truly breaks new ground, as an example of what 3D can be used for in terms of cinematic storytelling. The Walk does not consistently push the boundaries of 3D craftsmanship like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, but it does reach similar artistic peaks with the eponymous sequence – enough to make Zemeckis’ film must-see material in both 3D and IMAX, on its own. (Those scared of heights – consider yourselves warned.)
Beyond that, The Walk boasts a lovely, softly lit, visual style that allows the film’s world to resemble something from a dream or a nostalgic memory not altogether grounded in reality (similar to Life of Pi in that regard). This element further enhances the idea that Zemeckis isn’t creating a docudrama about Petit; rather, this version of the story is informed by Petit’s eccentric outlook and the film’s look reflects that narrative framework, aesthetically. That is in addition to the liberties that Zemeckis and Browne take with the facts that inform their script work, for creative purposes (e.g. to generate more dramatic tension in the story when necessary, and so forth).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt nimbly adapts the look of the real Petit (blue eyes, orange hair, sinewy physical build) with his turn in The Walk, while also boasting a consistent French accent that (arguably) sounds just as authentic as the genuine French accents that certain of his costars here possess. However, like with any great performance, it’s not how Levitt changed his appearance that makes Petit come alive as a character; it’s his unbridled (and sometimes border-line erratic) passion and manner that makes the actor thoroughly convincing as a man willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his “impossible” dream. The Walk, as mentioned before, isn’t always as naturally whimsical as it aspires to be, but Levitt is very much the beating heart that gives this shiny display of 3D cinematic showmanship life.
Still, the supporting characters in The Walk are not as fully developed as Petit (and the real-life important roles they played in executing Petit’s “coup” is arguably played down at times), yet Petit’s accomplices each have a distinct personality. Bringing a nice mix of humanity and humor to their respective roles are such talented character actors as Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey), James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3), Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation, House of Lies), and Steve Valentine (A Christmas Carol (2009)) – with Ben Kingsley rounding out the strong ensemble as Petit’s curmudgeonly mentor, Papa Rudy.
The Walk is an entertaining and often thrilling piece of storytelling, in addition to being an impressive display of 3D filmmaking. If Flight represented Zemeckis’ return to form after several years of directing polarizing motion-capture feature films, then The Walk demonstrates the director is still invested in telling great stories through whatever cutting-edge filmmaking technology is available to him. While The Walk isn’t on the same level as Gravity as a whole experience, it nevertheless does raise the bar for future 3D filmmaking ventures in numerous ways – while still incorporating the core ingredients of any good movie (good performances, solid writing, etc.).
Those who have never seen Petit’s story brought to life before may find The Walk to be an exhilarating rendition of his tale – one that should be experienced on the biggest screen available. Some fans of Man on Wire might find The Walk to be more of a style over substance take on the same narrative (and could also take issue with how it departs from the facts); but again, those open to a different rendering of the same plot may find Zemeckis’ film to be an equally admirable take on Petit’s “artistic crime of the century.”
The Walk is now playing in select IMAX 3D theaters, and will expand nation-wide on October 9th, 2015. It is 123 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking.
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