Let’s not mince any words here – Robert Zemeckis hasn’t made a good film since Cast Away, way back in the year 2000. I’ve always considered him a smart and gifted filmmaker, even though I don’t see what he sees in the motion capture thing that he seems to have been obsessed with for the past decade or so. He has marked a return to live-action with Flight (which I didn’t think was very good), and is back again with The Walk. It is based on the autobiography, To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit. His story is the inspiration to the great 2008 documentary Man on Wire. The popularity of the documentary has already caused a dismissive attitude toward The Walk, giving the film a pretty big obstacle to overcome. Zemeckis’ name is not a guarantee of quality, so the question is whether the story of Philippe Petit even needs the flash of a big Hollywood budget to tell the story.
The story begins in 1973, where we are introduced to Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a French street performer who meets and falls in love Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). He tells her about his dream, which is to hang a high-wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, as they are finishing up construction. It chronicles the things he had to do and the people he needed to get together for him to achieve his goal.
The first thing I want to mention is that The Walk seems to be a victim of bad marketing. Nothing that I saw of the marketing fully prepared me for the kind of film that The Walk actually was. What they were selling was a fact-based drama that explored a man who was seemingly committing an act of suicide for a vague sense of purpose. The film is actually more of a family-friendly crowd pleaser that celebrates art and the human experience. One thing that bugged me about the trailers was how silly it looked, but the silliness works and is definitely intentional. It feels like it was adapted from a screenplay that was meant to be an animated film. This could have easily been a Pixar film by Brad Bird or Pete Docter. You know how American Hustle had that over-the-top, kids-playing-dress-up quality to its look and feel? That’s what The Walk is like, and unlike American Hustle, it works completely in tone to the film and way the story is being told. Plus, I don’t have to suffer through David O. Russell doing his Scorsese impression.
This leads me to the film itself. I’m not kidding when I say the film is like watching an animated film. The pacing in the first two-thirds of the film is fast, very straight-forward, and tells its story through broad narrative strokes. There’s not a whole lot to it, as it simply sets up Philippe Petit and how he goes about attempting his high-wire act. The supporting characters aren’t very three-dimensional, and really only serve to have people for Philippe to bounce off of. You even have a lot of these moments where you see Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe with his silly accent standing on some clouds on top of the Statue of Liberty talking directly to the audience. The level of whimsy at play will most certainly catch you off-guard upon first viewing. The film is also broken into three distinct sections. The first is the introduction of Philippe and his eventual romance with Annie. The second is basically when the story suddenly turns into an Oceans-style heist film, similarly to how Man on Wire was structured. The final section is the walk itself. Again, the first two-thirds of the film play out with simplicity, it doesn’t dig too deep, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to, given the tone and aim of the story. It’s definitely good stuff that’s light and fun, if not particularly great.
Philippe’s need to deliver on his desire for the high-wire act to be a success is reflective on the film. Despite the accent, we actually get to like, appreciate and understand the drive behind Philippe to do the crazy things he does. We want him to be successful and the film needs to deliver on a great walk sequence to deliver successfully. I am not exaggerating when I say that the final half-hour or so is unlike anything I have ever experienced in a film before. Somehow the mildest of emotional connections made through the broad strokes of the first two-thirds pay-off in a sequence that managed to make me experience a plethora of emotion from fear (I cannot stand heights) to nervousness to anxiety all the way to immense joy, inspiration and excitement. Seeing Philippe accomplish his dream and seeing how the people were reacting with wonder as they watched below made me tear up. It was so profound that I had trouble finding words for it when describing it to a friend after seeing it. It’s a beautiful moment that left me in awe at what Zemeckis was able to accomplish not only from an emotional standpoint, but a technical one as well.
The Walk is easily one of the best 3D experiences I’ve had, and I would highly recommend anyone thinking of seeing the film while it’s out to watch it in IMAX 3D if it’s available to them. The VFX crew and the set/production designers managed to recreate a 70s New York and specifically the Twin Towers incredibly well, even if it’s a bit stylized to match the cartoonish whimsy of the screenplay. They sell the vertigo effect really well too. Plus, I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around the fact that the budget was only $35 million. The best films by Zemeckis have always been projects that use technology with the storytelling to do something uniquely cinematic, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit for example (one of my all-time favorites). I hesitate to say that The Walk is one of his best films overall, but it contains, without a doubt, some of the best work of Zemeckis’ career and it’s something he should definitely be proud of.
Of course, all the hard work from Zemeckis and the production crew would have gone to waste had it not been the solid performances form the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt uses his charm to his fullest extent here. Anyone (myself included) who was worried that his weird accent would distract and make him an annoying lead can relax. It helps that he also has a good supporting cast to work with. Ben Kingsley does solid work as Papa Rudy, a father figure (because that’s all he seems to do nowadays) and mentor to Philippe. Charlotte Le Bon continues to be a delightful screen presence and I’m predicting we’ll see more of her in the coming years. Ben Schwartz and James Badge Dale also get some moments to shine in smaller roles that were otherwise given little depth in terms of the writing.
I remember a brief period after Avatar came out when the big buzzword in Hollywood was “experience.” It was no longer about telling a compelling story, it was about creating this “experience” for the audience. The Walk is the kind of film that all “experience” movies should strive for. Proving that he still has it in him, Zemeckis and his crew used the technology to work in sync with the story, that is already engaging on it’s own due to an endearing protagonist and an interesting set-up, and they deliver in a sequence that is quite honestly an all-timer in my opinion. The performances are great, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is brilliant and Alan Silvestri’s score delivers as you’d expect. It’s a lovingly crafted modern fairy tale and love letter to the Twin Towers by a master filmmaker working on the top of his game that will make everyone walking out of the theater want to follow their dream come hell or high water. 90 / 100