The Ways The Walk Is At War With Itself

By  · Published on September 30th, 2015

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The Walk is one of this year’s most theatrically necessary Hollywood movies. You have to see it on the giant screen, meaning IMAX, and you have to see it in 3D. Or else just don’t bother. Yes, that is a big contradiction. I’m telling you to see it for full cost and most complete experience or to totally skip it forever. It’s not that the story isn’t worthy of the small screen, but if the story is all you want you’re better off with James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. Or even the sourced memoir “To Reach the Clouds.”

If you’re interested in the spectacle of seeing Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire act between the Twin Towers recreated, of watching the phenomenal feat as if you were there, from the ground as one of the spectators and as one of the accomplices atop the towers and even from Petit’s point of view on the wire itself, then see The Walk in only the most optimal way (I can’t comment on the virtual reality supplement to The Walk being additionally necessary, but it sounds like it is).

The movie is not perfect, and its problems include a number of issues we can take with the visually splendorous climax, but that climax is really exhilarating as it’s happening to you. If it’s worth getting to through the less-entertaining first half, then it certainly outweighs the movie’s other faults. And afterward, the imperfections, particularly the ways The Walk is itself already full of contradiction, are worthy of consideration. I don’t think they ruin the movie, yet they do challenge us in our appreciation.

Here are some of those ways in which I believe The Walk is in conflict with itself:

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Much is better suited for a small screen

The Walk may be an IMAX essential for a good portion of its 123-minute running time, but a lot of it also seems shot with much smaller screens in mind. Never mind the criticisms about how flat the story is or how jarring Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s French accent is or how much whimsical mime and unicycling you have to sit through to get to the good stuff. And never mind the titular walk supposedly making viewers queasy. The amount of close ups, especially on Gordon-Levitt as Petit and Charlotte Le Bon as his girlfriend, Annie, is what made me sick in IMAX size. We don’t need to see even the most egotistical character’s head that symbolically humongous. Also, subtitles, which director Robert Zemeckis humorously tries to get away from as much as possible, are typically a terrible thing in IMAX.

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3D is not the height of cinematic depiction of heights

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s not always as clever. While not actually even a true depiction of height and depth given that it’s all crafted with computer effects, the walk of The Walk still aims for realism, both in its meticulous detail and its employment of 3D to make us sense the physical space – the distance of the ground and the surrounding scope of the city. But as thrilling as it is to have the realistic feeling of being more than 100 stories above the ground, it’s not particularly a creative cinematic representation. Without the benefit of CG, Alfred Hitchcock regularly found ways to employ models, physical illusion and in-camera trickery – most famously with the dolly zoom effect named for his film Vertigo — to not exactly realistically show us height and depth but present them in dramatically interesting ways. The 3D is spectacular but also kind of boringly too perfect.

There’s irony in all that CG

Again, let me stress that the effects on display in The Walk are magnificent. The craft put into rendering the World Trade Center and all of the surrounding area, near and far, is extraordinary. Many times I forgot I was looking at nothing but CG buildings and CG landscapes and believed I was back in a world and time in which the Twin Towers still exist. What a great trick! Ironically, it’s all for a movie about a guy whose work consisted of physical spectacle without trickery. Not that we should expect Gordon-Levitt to perform the act himself, let alone expect for Zemeckis to construct exact replica towers to document that performance faithfully. It just winds up being funny to consciously think about how the magic of movies is manipulating us right after the main character makes an emotional stand against using a safety wire. I don’t want to address the merits of Man on Wire over The Walk too much here, but while it doesn’t have rolling footage of the act, there’s still a greater sense of amazement to see the photographs in the doc than it is to watch the faked copy in Zemeckis’s version.

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Its final tribute is missing something

Speaking of photographs of the real deal, I’m actually astonished that there’s ultimately no genuine shots of the World Trade Center. I guess there’s some old pictures in magazines and newspapers that Petit looks at in the movie, but I was expecting some sort of proper tribute at the end, maybe during the end credits. Don’t tell me that would have put too much focus on the tragedy of 9/11 or the buildings in general, taking away from this specific story. The movie already respectfully hints at all that through Gordon-Levitt’s final words from his perch in the Statue of Liberty torch. The movie is in part a tribute to the Twin Towers but without showing the real thing it treats them like ghosts. Maybe that’s fine, as I suppose the digital versions are not much different than the Tribute in Light, but those vertical blue streams weren’t intended to make us think we were seeing the real towers. I don’t know that there should be shots of the actual World Trade Center, just noting that it feels a bit lacking without them.

Sony Pictures

There’s an incomplete attention to detail

This final point will be seen as awfully nitpicky, no different than spotting a goof in any other movie. But this isn’t just any movie. The Walk looks like the result of production designers (led by Naomi Shohan) painstakingly focused on getting every detail right. You might as well be when tasked with digitally recreating an entire city as backdrop for a lot of the action. I don’t have 1974 Manhattan so memorized from above that I could confirm that every building in the landscape shots is authentically placed, but I assume it’s all square. Unfortunately, right before the movie ends, there’s a shot of a Chinatown J/M/Z subway stop that I’m certain is anachronistic if not even worse. Firstly, the Z train didn’t even exist ten, those lines weren’t collectively designated a brown color yet and as far as I can recall, there wasn’t ever a station labeled “Chinatown” in such a way. So it’s not just that they lazily employed a sign they found in use today. It probably wouldn’t have stuck with me and bothered me so much if it wasn’t so late in the movie, but it was especially glaring because of how perfectly precise the rest of the film is, or at least seems to be.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.