Those who saw James Marsh’s Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire, which depicts the completely true and very much insane story upon which Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk is based, know that there’s something special about the way wire-walking artist and all-around insane human Philippe Petit tells his story. There’s an energy to the way Petit recounts the events surrounding his most famous “coup,” as he calls it. As Petit describes the way he and his accomplices devised and then executed a plan to string a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, his energy is infectious and his language is filled with passion. It’s hard to forget the Frenchman’s way. To listen to his story is to feel his profound love for his daring art.
This passion, this narration, is one thing that was carried over into Zemeckis’ fictionalization. For better or worse, though mostly for worse at the onset, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s turn as Petit includes a lot of narration. It’s easy to see why the filmmaker would make such a choice. No one tells this story better than Petit. And by the end, the narration pays off some gut-wrenching emotional moments. But at first, it’s clunky and off-putting. Mostly because we know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is putting on that pronounced French accent. It’s the reason why The Walk gets off to such a clunky start. An artistic choice based on the subject of the story, one that doesn’t exactly work quite as well as the real thing. But isn’t that the inherent issue with adapting a blockbuster from a real story that’s already been told in a wonderful documentary? To say the least, the odds were stacked against The Walk from the beginning. And in the first 20 minutes of the film, it’s easy to see why some skepticism about its necessity as a film was warranted.
That said, once we get through the initial bouts of narration and exposition, The Walk absolutely soars. The most important question for a movie such as The Walk to answer is, “Why does this movie exist?” Haven’t we seen been far enough down this road before? In the final act of his film, Robert Zemeckis gives us every reason why this film should exist in vivid detail. It begins with the moment Philippe first visits the World Trade Center. The photo-real rendering of those towers, an iconic image locked into he memory of anyone who was alive during the time when they stood tall over New York, is both unnerving and profound. There’s no cheap novelty to seeing them again, just a quiet reverence, something that exists within the audience’s mind and within the intense performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It isn’t the fact that he can put on a decent Petit impersonation or speak fluent French that makes Gordon-Levitt’s performance riveting, it’s the passion and adoration in his face every time he looks at those towers. The real Philippe Petit was in love with those buildings even before they were built. That is a fact that comes through wonderfully in Gordon-Levitt’s performance.
The other thing that comes through quite viscerally in this movie: the fact that Petit was 100% mad. And that his stunt, this art of walking on a wire, was perhaps one of the most dangerous things ever attempted by a human. More than 1,300 feet above the ground, separated from certain death by only a steel cable, Petit went for a stroll. With the use of 3D to add incredible depth to the scene, Zemeckis brings the sheer height to life for his audience. And not just in the moments when the camera, from Petit’s point-of-view, pans down to two feet, a wire and the vast expanse below. There are gorgeous wide shots of a sprawling New York City, rendered as it was in 1974. The realism of the city, the monstrous towers, it’s all breath-taking. And that’s before you add in the vertigo-inducing visual gags that Zemeckis throws in to make the entire experience somewhat sickening, especially if you’re not a fan of heights. With a toolbox full of impressive visuals and a usage of 3D that is perfectly matched to the subject matter, Zemeckis puts the audience on the wire with Philippe. This is the reason why this movie exists. It is a distressingly real, vivid depiction of the artistic crime of the century and a fierce portrait of the man who pulled it off.
After we are done almost vomiting our way through the walk itself, the movie turns in an emotional punch that is unexpected and massive. There isn’t much that a movie like The Walk can do to surprise us. As terrifying as the visuals of the act itself may be, anyone who Googles Philippe Petit knows how the story ends. But there’s another element at work toward the end of the movie. Anyone who lived through 9/11 has a place in their heart for those twin towers. Their destruction was a profound image, one that symbolized the fragile nature of freedom and safety. It was an event that altered the course of human history unlike any other in my own lifetime. Something that anyone who watched it happen live will never forget. As a member of the Millennial generation, I’m no stranger to nostalgia. This isn’t nostalgia. This is reverence. The beautiful recreation of those towers combined with the deep love story between Philippe Petit and those structures make The Walk an heavy experience. It’s the kind of movie that will bring you to the edge of anxiety and terror, then finish you off on the brink of tears. It’s exhausting, but also quite a profound journey.
The Upside: Stunning, photo-real visuals; a strong performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a use of 3D that will make your heart stop (seriously, don’t see this if you have heart problems).
The Downside: It begins very slowly, mostly due to some clunky narration.
On the Side: The real Philippe Petit has appeared in a number of documentaries about his life. He also appeared in the 1986 IMAX film Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic as Charles Blondin, a tight-rope walker who crossed over Niagara Falls first in 1859, then many times thereafter.