2008’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” beautifully showcased the incredible French artist Philippe Petit, who, in 1974, defined cultural American history by walking on a wire hung between the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City. The story itself is remarkable, and as the Hollywood version of Petit’s feat, “The Walk”, once again proves – Petit’s saga leading-up to his daring stroll is so unbelievable there’s no way any of it could have possibly been made-up.
The previous film from legendary director Robert Zemeckis, 2012’s airplane pilot drama “Flight”, featured a memorable sequence early on with Denzel Washington landing a 747 upside down. The rest of that film wasn’t nearly as strong, though Washington’s performance definitely held your attention. “The Walk” has a reverse effect. It’s Petit’s backstory and the preparations for his walk that are interesting and escalate in quality as we get closer and closer to the critical morning of August 7th. And then, after 90 minutes, the showcase visual scenes finally appear.
“The Walk” had been primarily screened for critics, and marketed to audiences, in its IMAX 3D format. I decided to see it in regular 2D, and trust me, the visuals and this interpretation of Petit’s actual walk are still very effective. And the climactic wire walk sequence is accompanied by my favorite film score of the year so far – it’s absolutely lovely.
Early on, and at certain key spots, Zemeckis intentionally throws us a gimmick aimed for the 3D effect, and you can tell that much of his vision was aimed for that format. Otherwise this fictionalized execution of the story is as straight as a wire. His biggest risk was allowing Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is quite convincing as Petit in the dramatic and conversation scenes) to narrate the entire film. And he does this, often, on camera, looking directly at the lens while standing next to the torch atop the Statue of Liberty. For me, this device was the one element “The Walk” could’ve easily walked away from. We do get to hear Petit talk about his psychological struggles and first-hand experiences of the amazing event, but each time we go to Gordon-Levitt on Lady Liberty it feels awkward, leaning towards corny (or maybe that he’s going to try to sell us auto insurance).
Even so, “The Walk” succeeds with a fine lead and solid supporting work from Sir Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a veteran trapeze artist who mentors Petit, and Charlotte Le Bon (who shined opposite Helen Mirren in “The Hundred-Foot Journey”) as Petit’s girlfriend Annie. The real Petit personally trained Gordon-Levitt, which must’ve been an unforgettable experience for the Golden Globe nominated actor.
Most of all, “The Walk” pulls-off something rather difficult in the symbolism department: making us believe in and care about buildings that, tragically, no longer exist. It’s clear throughout that Zemeckis has the importance of these structures on his mind, honoring them through this triumphant event. The towers will live on, as Petit puts-it, “forever”.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Walk” gets a B.
Running Time: 123 min.