The Walk and all the images you see in this review are owned by TriStar Pictures
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
I thought I was done with the biopics! HOW MANY MORE MUST I SIT THROUGH THIS YEAR!? Oh wait. This is based off the story that they did a really cool documentary of already? Wait, it’s also directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Well when you put it that way, this might end up being one of the better ones this year! Right up there with Straight Outta Compton if we’re lucky! If nothing else, every resource you can imagine to make this into a great film is there (great story, great director, great actor) and all they need to do is put it together into a strong and compelling narrative that gets across what made this story so fascinating to begin with. Can Zemeckis work his magic to give us yet another masterpiece to put alongside his other great films, or will this end up being a lesser version of the great documentary that we got less than a decade ago? Let’s find out!!
The movie is a dramatization of the events that led up to Philippe Petite and his friends tying a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center that he walked on for forty-five minutes in August of 1974. Along with the recreation of the night leading up to it and the day of the walk, we also get some backstory for Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who started tightrope walking at a young age and eventually became a street performer in Paris. There’s not much of a revelation for this guy that led to him decoding to walk between the towers. He saw an article about its construction in a magazine (while waiting to see a dentist) and just decided that that would be a worthy challenge for his skills and would be a great artistic statement. This is no small endeavor mind you and Philippe doesn’t waste what time he has before the towers are complete. He goes back to his mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and learns as much as he can to perfect his craft as well as gathering accomplices to assist him in setting up the tightrope on the day they set the plan into motion. Will the group be able to get to the top of the tower and set everything up before they get caught by police? Will Philippe accomplish his dream which boarders on madness? Well this IS a true story so you may already know what happens… but can Robert Zemeckis make you care anyway!?
I saw the documentary they made a couple years ago about this story (Man on Wire) which was a fantastic film and was shot in a way that was very cinematic. The one job that The Walk had to do was justify its own existence against the documentary that preceded it which is no easy task because on top of being filmed like an exhilarating heist, it has a level of authenticity that no fictionalized account of the events could have. This is where Robert Zemeckis comes in and proves once again that he is an amazing filmmaker. Now there was a shakey period there where his overly ambitious forays into the world of Computer Generated features were mixed at best, but he did come back strong with Flight. I had my problems with that movie, but they were mostly in regards to the script which is something that this movie thankfully has a leg up on simply due to the real life story being so compelling that it would be hard to screw it up. Ultimately what he adds to the story is a masterful sense of style and special effects that are infinitely more effective than anything in Pan with only a fifth of its budget. Instead of throwing lots of money at garish set pieces that fail to impress, they instead focus on the humanistic aspects of the story and let the stylistic flourishes complement them rather than distract from them. The use of black and white film to get across the bohemian atmosphere of Paris in the 1960s. The various angles and trick photography used to give the Twin Towers a sense of unbelievable scale which drives home the gravity of what Philippe is trying to accomplish. The stomach churning tension of when he finally gets up on that wire and we can see just how high up the dude really is. The movie manages to outdo most CGI-tastic BOOM-a-thons in terms of thrills and special effects because it’s not about topping what we’ve seen before but instead by bring something real and impressive to life. The desire for greatness and the rush of taking one big shot to reach your dream.
While we’re talking about the good parts of the movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is carrying this all the way through and he makes the most of it. His accent is OUTRAGEOUSLY French, but it fits the part he’s playing. He’s a larger than life character which you would pretty much have to be to not only pull off a scheme this hair brained bur to get other people to help him do it. He even narrates in a stylish and unconventional way that goes quite well with the stylish and avant-garde (to an extent) tone that they’re trying to get across here. The only other movie I can think of that has a similar narrative device is Bronson which is ALSO a biopic about an eccentric European guy though that one isn’t quite as upbeat and friendly as The Walk is. Then again, both movies have the main character get naked so there’s that. The other actor who stands out here is Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy and it’s SO good to see him not slumming it in garbage like Self/less. When he’s not wasting his time on forgettable crap, he can still manage to light up the screen and remind you why he still’s considered a respected actor despite appearing in The Love Guru.
Aside from those two though, everyone else in this is relegated to minor roles and don’t hold a candle to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s scene stealing performance. That really is the biggest weakness in this movie. Whenever the movie isn’t about Phillippe or his mentor, the movie suffers because no one is as interesting. Hell, we barely get a reason for these people to risk so much to do this which means we don’t’ really care what happens to them as long as they continue to get Philippe closer to his goals. They also try to give us a moment to say that Philippe is TOO obsessed with his goal to give him some sort of character flaw, but it’s really token and don’t sell in the least because of how much we like this guy. Oh, he doesn’t say thank you enough. HE BOUGHT THEM ALL DINNER A BUNCH OF TIMES!! If anyone was upset with Philippe, they didn’t really show it until his girlfriend blows up at him that one time. Maybe the real life people didn’t have deep reasons for going along with this, but that still doesn’t help the movie’s weak supporting cast and because of that the “he doesn’t treat his friends right” moment ends up falling completely flat. No one does a bad job acting wise, but their roles are very perfunctory.
It’s been quite some time since I saw the documentary and while I remembered many details from it, I had actually forgotten what happened after he was taken in by police once his walk was finished. It was surprising to me how not just the people but the City of New York itself reacted to this at the time. Watching the movie here and considering our current political climate, I would have figured that the police, government, and judicial system would try to throw the book at him for a stunt like this and he would end up spending a long time in jail because of it. Instead, he’s regarded with true adulation from everybody and he barely gets any punishment because the judge ruling on his case decided that he doesn’t have to go to jail but instead had to perform a live performance in the middle of Central Park for anyone to attend for free. Even the architect of the World Trade Center himself really like what Philippe did and gave him a pass to visit the two towers at any time. If something like that were to happen today, he would first get shot before anything else and then there would be a lot of people saying that what he was doing was absolutely wrong and he’s a terrorist or whatever reactionary bullshit they can froth up. Like The Martian from last week, it’s great that we have such an uplifting movie in the theaters to brighten up the multiplexes and it’s nice to think that we weren’t always in a world where everything had to be a controversy or be resolved with the utmost of force and punishment. The movie thankfully doesn’t get heavy handed with 9/11 symbolism despite the movie taking place at the World Trade Center, but it’s also ironic that a movie that so deftly avoids any cheap exploitation of that tragedy can say something of value about our post 9/11 mentality. There is no such thing as a perfect time and the seventies were by no means the halcyon days of America, but there has been a change when in those days a group of foreigners can trespass and put on a crazy stunt like this without having to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, yet now a student can’t even build a clock without getting called a terrorist.
Even without the politics to consider, this is a wonderful film that’s worth going out to see. Zemeckis is damn near at the top of his game with this film and I wouldn’t be surprised if the film gets some recognition once award season rolls around. It more than justifies its existence when measured against the amazing documentary and it may end up being one of the best films of the year. We’ll have to see how the rest of the season plays out, but for right now I highly recommend that you make time for this crazy true to life story that has more magic and imagination than almost any big budget blockbuster we’ve seen this year.
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