It’s a thin line between life and a 1,300 foot free-fall. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale and Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley star in Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk.
Cast of Characters:
Philippe Petit – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Papa Rudy – Ben Kingsley
Annie – Charlotte Le Bon
Jean-Pierre – James Badge Dale
Jean-Louis – Clement Sibony
Jean-Francois – Cesar Domboy
Albert – Ben Schwartz
Barry Greenhouse – Steve Valentine
Director – Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay – Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne
Based on the memoir To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit
Producer – Jack Rapke, Tom Rothman, Robert Zemeckis & Steve Starkey
Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity
French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a dream – to walk across the World Trade Center towers.
C’mon, pussy, that’s the best you can do?
The act, both highly dangerous and illegal, takes years of planning, but by August 1974, Petit, with the help of his “coup” accomplices and an inside man, risks life and limb as he steps out a quarter mile above the city of New York, supported only by a cable.
Sounds ridiculous, huh? Well, it actually happened.
Yes, the real-life Petit first conceived of the plan back in 1968 when he read about the proposed Twin Towers construction in a magazine at the dentist’s office. Known as the “artistic crime of the century”, Petit’s plan took six years of researching everything he could about the towers and preparing himself for such a death-defying feat. Prior to walking the Twin Towers, he performed high-wire stunts on the towers of Notre Dame de Paris and north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.
The night of August 6, 1974, Petit and his crew sneaked their equipment, which included a 450 pound cable, up to the top of the building. By 7 am, the next morning, Petit began his performance, making eight trips across the wire, during which he danced, lay down on the wire, and knelt in salute to the crowd down below.
Quite an impressive feat… Crazy, yes, but impressive nonetheless.
The uphill battle for a film like The Walk is that it’s following an impressive documentary on the same subject from 2008 called Man on Wire. Without any video footage of what took place that day, director James Marsh combined interviews with Petit and his accomplices, still photographs and reenactments to create a stirring account of Petit’s amazing feat. It’s available to see on Netflix, and I highly recommend checking it out.
Not that we needed a movie version of what happened, but if we’re getting one anyway, it doesn’t hurt to have Oscar-winning director and visual effects pioneer Robert Zemeckis on board to bring it to life once more, and boy, does he create quite an experience here.
The Walk opens up with Petit breaking the fourth wall on top of Lady Liberty, the towers standing at a distance behind him. It’s a narrating device that has worked before (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the best example, and Scorsese used it a little bit in The Wolf of Wall Street), but it’s also a risky one that can potentially sink the film. It’s a gimmick that works here, though, thanks to the charismatic work from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (whose faux French accent isn’t anywhere near as distracting as some critics thought it to be) that effectively captures the eccentricities of his character. If you’ve seen any interviews of the real life Philippe Petit, you’ll realize it’s a device that fits his personality well.
Despite a streak of sub-par, albeit beautiful looking, performance capture animated films (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) in the 21st century, there’s no denying the gift for storytelling that director Robert Zemeckis has shown in the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Flight and the criminally underrated Contact and Romancing the Stone (just Back to the Future and Forrest Gump alone are more than enough to make up for his stinkers Death Becomes Her and What Lies Beneath). Like most of his best works, Zemeckis brings a whimsical approach to the story that almost feels a little Burton-esque here. Like Gordon-Levitt’s fourth wall breaking, the light touch at times fits Petit’s sense of wonder, but it also tends to butt heads with moments that aim to play it biopic straight.
Despite the tone shifting in the first 25-30 minutes, once the plan kicks into gear, especially when Petit arrives in New York, the film turns into the captivating adventure you expect it to be, playing like a heist film before bringing the goods with the walk (in a predictable but nevertheless nice touch, Cesar Domboy plays the acrophobic Jean-Francois, who as you’d expect, winds up having to accompany Petit on most of the dangerous work on top of the WTC).
The final half-hour, Zemeckis pulls out all the stops and delivers in grand fashion. 3D aside (for those not wanting to pay the extra cost, it expands to 2D screenings next weekend), the walk is an impressive display not just in terms of visuals, but also Gordon-Levitt’s performance who captures Petit’s joy and sense of never feeling more alive perfectly while barely uttering a word (the high-wire walking is actually no effect as Gordon-Levitt was trained by the Petit himself on how to walk a wire). Between Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography (Wolski’s having a pretty good week between this and The Martian) and Alan Silvestri’s moving score, which accompanies the walk beautifully without overwhelming it, the climactic act will leave you speechless.
It says much about Zemeckis as a filmmaker that he’s able to take an event most already know the outcome to, and yet he’s still able to have us on the edge of our seats gnawing our fingernails down to the cuticles as we watch Petit perform (one jaw-dropping moment involves Gordon-Levitt laying down on top of the wire).
Of course, in a post-9/11 world, it’s impossible to not be reminded of that tragic day even though the events take place decades before it, and to not even mention it, or even just allude to it, would create an awkward elephant in the room. The Walk serves as a tribute to the Twin Towers, which are practically characters here, and though Zemeckis has never been touted for subtlety, Gordon-Levitt’s final few lines and the final shot of the towers close the film on a beautiful and surprisingly subtle note.
Carried by a charismatic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk is a faithful recreation of Philippe Petit’s death-defying stunt that may have its uneven spots during the first act, but once it, pardon the pun, finds its footing it becomes a visually mesmerizing adventure brought to life through Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking cinematography and Robert Zemeckis’s skillful use of CGI. Those with a fear of heights will surely be bracing their seats, and even the most fearless may find themselves joining them.
I give The Walk a B+ (★★★).
REVIEWS COMING LATER NEXT WEEK…
10/5/15 What the Hell Were They Thinking?!
10/6/15 Benjamin’s Stash
10/9/15 Goodnight Mommy