Review: The Walk

The_Walk_(2015_film)_posterPanic occurs early in The Walk and it has nothing to do with extreme heights or vertigo expected from a film about the true tale of Philippe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The anxiety comes from the Muppet-like French accent of Gordon-Levitt and what may happen when the French see this film—worthy of a riot; at least. The Walk is as goofy in execution as Gordon-Levitt’s accent and co-writer and director, Robert Zemeckis, puts a fascinating story through a cartoonish filter that is ultimately crippled by sentimentality.

The technical wizardry of The Walk is what will make many forget the sloppy execution. Zemeckis and editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll create a fluid trip through Petit’s journey with seamless transitions from moment-to-moment; it flows like memories. It’s most apparent in the way Zemeckis establishes height and scale to condition you to be swept up in a little movie magic when Petit finally takes to the wire in New York City. Zemeckis creates a sense of distance from the ground early on by showing a young Petit walking on a rope between two trees in his backyard and the wire keeps getting raised with each sequence including a walk over a lake and on a high-wire in the big top of a circus.  It feels like a form of brain training in preparation for the World Trade Center walk—and it works. In a beautiful sequence (maybe the film’s saving grace) Petit prepares to walk between the towers as the sun rises and clouds roll-in to hide Manhattan below.  As the cloud dissipate, you get a look at the drop and there’s the strange thrill of wanting to cower close to an edge for protection while wanting to jump off at the same time.  Aided by Zemeckis’ use of 3-D and his height conditioning, for a brief moment, the flat screen has an amazing amount of depth and life.

It’s such a shame that within the context of the rest of The Walk, the centerpiece of the film is more like a carnival gimmick because Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Brown never build enough emotional resonance around the Petit character for any of it to matter. Petit spends a majority of the film yelling at anyone who will listen, “it’s my dream!” And if they don’t agree, “it’s my dream, I am an artist!” It’s a flimsy motivation built on hollow statements rather than any genuine passion. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is nothing but boisterous enthusiasm…and that’s it. For a brief moment there’s an exchange between Petit and his mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), about ego and complacency on the wire that’s an interesting take on hubris and showmanship; but it’s fleeting.

In an act of desperation Zemeckis and Brown decide to let sentimentality rule the final moments of the film with an odd reflective mood for the World Trade Center towers—events of 11 September 2001 are heavily alluded to but completely unnecessary. Zemeckis pummels the point home in such an inhuman way that it’s hard not to think his brain has been replaced by a computer chip after six years in Uncanny Valley with The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and Beowulf. Between Flight and The Walk, Zemeckis has belly flopped back into live-action filmmaking in a way that’s reminiscent of George Lucas’ misguided foray into the Star Wars prequels.

The Walk is a film that clomps around in clown shoes despite an elegant dalliance when on the high wire on top of New York City, a scene so good, it may convince you of the film’s overall quality and prove that Zemeckis is one of the best working swindlers.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie

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