The Walk (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Walk” is a fictionalized account of an incident in 1974 when a French tightrope walker named Phillipe Petit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth across a cable suspended between the two towers of the then-new World Trade Center.  He was 1,350 feet above the ground with no safety wire or harness.  The Towers, which at the time were unpopular, suddenly gained approval by New Yorkers, and the feat was so impressive that all criminal charges against Petit for the act and the planning of it were dismissed as long as he performed a free show for children in Central Park.  It’s one of those stories that, if it were not true, would be wholly unbelievable.  For those of us not alive in 1974, we perhaps learned about this story through the documentary “Man on Wire” (2008), and of course learning about this event is forever colored by the 9/11 attacks.  Those buildings are no longer there, and some victims of the attack jumped to their deaths from the same heights that Petit once stood on a wire at.  What was once simply a skillful daredevil fear has been imbued with a profundity that did not exist at the time.

“The Walk” largely takes the form of a heist movie, with the formulaic structure of the team being assembled, the intricate planning of an illegal act, and then finally the act.  The difference, of course, is that the illegal act is not the robbing of a bank or casino, but something more benign.  Sure, if Petite had fallen to his death it wouldn’t have been so benign, and he could have potentially hurt others in the course of the act if he or any of his equipment crashed down below, but for the most part the only person at risk from the event was himself.  What’s amazing to consider while watching the film, in the wake of 9/11, is how lacking the security at the Towers were.  Petite and his accomplices were able to make multiple surreptitious visits to the Towers to study their architecture, security measures, and layout in a manner that would have proven most invaluable to someone with less benign motives. In 1974, before terrorists attacks on domestic soil became a national fear of the American populous, this wouldn’t have even been considered, but in hindsight it adds an extra uncomfortable feeling to the whole situation.

If someone simply wants to know the details of what happened to make Petite’s impressive feat a reality, the documentary “Man in Wire” is a much better place to go.  “The Walk” suffers from a number of flaws. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while often a very good actor, has a distractingly cartoonish French accent in playing Petit, who himself has a strong French accent, but not quite as Looney Tunes as Levitt is showcasing here.  The film has an annoying voiceover from Levitt and often cuts to him delivering information from the top of a very fake CGI Statute of Liberty, a gift from the French to NYC…very subtle comparison to Petit giving the city a gift via his performance, right? Yeah, subtlety has never been director Robert Zemeckis’s specialty in films like this (“Forest Gump” comes to mind) and this voiceover and filmed narration is a device I wish had been left on the cutting room floor. It makes our main character more annoying then he has to be.  Granted, for a guy to do what Petit does, he has to be a little egotistical and crazy, but he doesn’t have to talk our ear off with narcissistic pleas to his own deep feelings.

The film doesn’t quite give us a reasonable timeline of the development of Petit’s skill.  Oh sure, we see him train on somewhat low high wires on his own, and we see him get tips and pointers from a master Czech circus owner (Ben Kingsley) on how to tie the correct tightrope knot, but this film could have desperately used a montage or something showing Petit getting better.  Instead, the film provides us with a walk over a pond where Petit gets distracted and falls off.  The next time he gets on a wire, he’s suddenly successfully walked a wire across the two spires of Notre Dame, which is much higher and more dangerous than the pond he failed at.  What? How did Petit suddenly get that much better? The film doesn’t give us an answer; it just wants us to assume he’s suddenly awesome, and ready to tackle his plan of walking across the two towers.  In reality, Petit did many other walks in preparation, and those would have been useful to put in the film, if even only in a quick montage form.  I guess the filmmakers decided not to do this to make the inevitable Trace Center walk have more suspense, but since we all know that Petit did this walk successfully, that suspense is cut off at the knees anyway.

The film doesn’t particularly go a good job of explaining Petit’s drive to keep performing on high wires.  We’re basically just told he saw the circus once and was enraptured.  Then he’s being kicked out of the house by his parents for not giving up on his dream.  The film introduces us to a love interest, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), but it never gives us a sufficient explanation for why Annie is interested in Petit, she has no real role in the high wire walk, and she pretty much dumps Petit as soon as the walk is over.  This character has no reason to exist in the film except for the fact that the film has no other real female characters to speak of.  The filmmaker should have given her character a reason to be included, or eliminated her.

Honestly, though, the reason to see “The Walk” is not for the story of Petit as a person.  The film exists for us to experience, first hand, the elaborate planning of the high-wire walk, and then to put us out on the wire with Petit, the one thing the documentary could not do.  The planning stages are fun to watch, and it’s amazing how much time, effort, planning, and manpower was needed to pull this thing off.

As for the walk itself, it is THE reason to see the film, especially in 3D. For all the flaws the film around it contains, those 20 or so minutes on the wire with Petit are edge-o-your seat, rollercoaster ride-level thrilling.  3D does a better job of masking bad CGI than 2D, so I don’t know how it plays in 2D, but in 3D you FEEL like you’re on that wire and that Petit could fall to his death at any moment. I personally was gripping the armrest of my seat and became very nervous any time Petit decided to kneel down, or lay down on the wire, or shift his balancing pole behind his shoulders and turn around to walk in the opposite direction.  I was biting down on my teeth and saying to myself, in my head, “No! Don’t do that! You’re insane! Get down from there!”  For that sequence, the film does what the best of movies do, and that is to make you feel, in a gut-level, instinctual way, that something that is not happening is really happening, right now, on the screen, and to inspire a visceral emotional reaction because of it.  “The Walk” may be lackluster for most of its running time, but for those 20 minutes, it is one of the best films of the year.

So how the hell do I grade a film where 20 minutes are an A but the other 103 minutes are maybe a C+?  I guess I split the difference.  The movie is overall pretty amusing, but the script is flawed beyond belief and the narration is annoying as hell.  Still, you forget all of that for the film’s climax, and the planning scenes are very interesting. I guess is some of the film is excellent, and most of the film is so-so, the film as a total can still be called good. B.

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