Mark Reviews Movies

The Walk


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Kingsley, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Clément Sibony, Benedict Samuel, César Domboy

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements including perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 9/30/15 (limited); 10/9/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 29, 2015

Co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis presents the story of Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope across the 130-foot gap between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, as a romantic fable. In The Walk, Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a just-shy-of-comical French accent, narrates the details of his artistic "coup" from atop another New York City landmark: the torch of the Statue of Liberty, overlooking New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan with an almost-constant view of those unforgotten towers in the background (Near the end of the film, there's one moment when they're absent, if only momentarily, but even that brief moment is shock to the system). He's a puckish figure from the get-go, insisting that he cannot explain why he did what he did. Besides, anyone who doesn't understand it is incapable of understanding it. The how of his endeavor will have to suffice.

The film is an adaptation of Petit's book To Reach the Clouds, and this material already has been covered cinematically by way of non-fiction (For interested parties, that film would be James Marsh's effective Man on Wire). Zemeckis and his fellow screenwriter Christopher Browne assume we know some, if not all, of the specifics of the buildup to the climactic trek across the 110-story drop.

They give that part to us straight, with plenty of talk from Philippe, as he waxes idealistic on the subject of his desire to fulfill his dream of achieving the seemingly impossible (With the combination of the character's narration and his dialogue during the narrative he's spinning, there's more than plenty of talk about the subject). It's a breezy, jovial reminder of not only how irrational Petit's plan was but also how much chutzpah he needed in order just to get his feet on that wire.

That makes the first hour of the film an entertaining and briskly paced mixture of biography (We learn of Philippe self-teaching himself to walk the tightrope, as well as his career before his most famous performance) and planning (the logistics of how the wire should be set up, how to physically set it up, and how to get into and to the top of the towers without arousing enough suspicion for someone to call the cops). After that hour, though, the scheme goes into action, and with Zemeckis' consummate control of tone and pacing and visual effects, the film, especially once Philippe prepares to take his first steps across and over the void, becomes something altogether astonishing.

The story goes from Philippe's youth, as a boy transfixed with the high-wire act at a local circus, to his young adulthood, performing in the streets of Paris. He meets a young woman named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who supports his endeavors, and learns the tricks of the trade from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the patron of the circus' tightrope performers.

The sight of an illustration of the incomplete World Trade Center towers in a magazine puts the idea in Philippe's head, and he becomes obsessed with it, especially after he learns construction of the towers is nearly finished. He discovers that information while browsing the newspaper accounts of his tightrope walk between the towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Philippe assembles his team of "accomplices." Among them, James Badge Dale, as a smooth-talking and French-speaking New Yorker, and César Domboy, as an acrophobic math teacher, are the standouts, while Le Bon, Clément Sibony, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, and Benedict Samuel play the remaining crew members. Philippe surveys the layout of the towers, donning such disguises as a journalist (enabling him to ask the exact distance between the two structures) and an architect, leading him to step on a nail at the construction site.

The nail incident, of course, actually did happen, and it's one of those true-life details that Zemeckis and Browne milk for just the right amount of tension within a story with a foreknowable outcome. Philippe's foot begins to bleed again in the hours before his walk. By the by, the realization of that fact comes while Philippe is hiding from a security guard on the 110th floor of the South Tower. By another by, he's hiding under a tarp that is covering an unfinished shaft. By yet another by, sitting with Philippe on a narrow steel girder, which is the only thing protecting them from a 109-story fall, is the math teacher who, again, has a debilitating fear of heights.

The character of the teacher is a simple yet incredibly effective device—a surrogate for the audience as a juxtaposition to the daring Philippe. Philippe leaps over the side of the roof to nab an arrow, to which a fishing wire that will help bring the steel wire across the gap is attached, but then we get a moment in which the teacher must go to ledge to tighten the wire. That's a particularly terrifying moment.

Of course, Zemeckis doesn't really need the help in building the tension. Once Philippe steps onto the wire, we're treated to an extended sequence that is harrowing, beautiful, comedic, and, in its technical prowess, jaw-dropping. On multiple levels (The most depressing one, obviously, is that those magnificent towers are no longer present to be filmed), we know this is all whiz-bang computer trickery, but Zemeckis is a master illusionist. His camera whirls around Philippe, hovers above him, and takes his subjective point-of-view looking down to appreciate a sight that he knows he will never see again (The narration becomes burdensome in this section, if only because Zemeckis doesn't need it).

We buy into the illusion of the climax of The Walk completely. The seams show but for a moment, and even then, they inadvertently help to amplify our appreciation for the whole of the trick. Petit's story isn't as inspirational here as the film believes it to be, but Zemeckis' ability to convey the experience of Petit's accomplishment more than makes up for it.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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