It's very possible that THE WALK, the new film by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, may be the “feel good” movie of the year. The story of Philippe Petit, the masterful acrobat whose feat of walking on a wire between the Two Towers at the World Trade Center in 1974 was always going to be awe-inspiring, but Zemeckis and his team have turned it almost into a fable. The result for moviegoers is a movie that not only puts them up on that wire 1350 feet above the ground but ensures that they walk out of the theater with their head still in the clouds.
Zemeckis wisely cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, because even when he’s playing a sexist, chronic masturbator as he did in his directorial debut in 2013’s DON JON he remains likable. (We’ll see if the same holds when he renders Edward Snowden for Oliver Stone next year.) Gordon-Levitt’s smile and twinkling eyes are delightful and they give his portrayal of the Frenchman Petit a “Pied Pieper” quality. He may beg, bully, and bluster his cohorts to help him pull off this dangerous and highly illegal stunt in downtown Manhattan, but he’s always charming in doing so.
And Zemeckis starts his story high atop another New York landmark – the Statue of Liberty – where Petit narrates his tale accompanied by a magical score from Alan Silvestri. The veteran composer practically sprinkles pixie dust on some of the more transcendent high wire scenes, imbuing them with a Disney feel, even though the movie’s being released by Sony.
If anyone saw MAN ON WIRE, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, they already know the story of Philippe Petit, and that he’s alive and well today, so Zemeckis wisely chooses to not create false drama out of whether or not his daredevil makes it or not across the wire. Instead, he focuses on all of Petit’s work that went into pulling off such an incredible feat. And in doing so, he ensures that the big set-piece of his movie, the walk across that wire, conveys all that went into it, and it renders it even more impressive.
|The real Philippe Petit during his walk in 1974.|
Still, the movie suffers some from the abundance of dialogue imbued with technical jargon regarding cables and such. At times, the plotting plays a bit like OCEAN'S ELEVEN where everything has to be explained to understand the complexity of its heist. Such exposition can get a bit monotonous and at times, your eyes may glaze over some. But what keeps the movie so enthralling despite such slow parts, are its three core assets – it’s a true story, Petit’s passion is wondrous to behold, and Zemeckis knows how to technically dazzle with all of his special effects.
Not only does he recreate that miraculous walk on the wire but he injects magical effects into the movie throughout. His camera zooms in and around Petit, starting with his address to us from high atop Lady Liberty’s torch. He adds spot color to key items in early black and white scenes like shoes and police uniforms to cleverly foreshadow their importance later in the movie. And Zemeckis makes sensational use of IMAX-3D and its surrounding sound system. This movie, like Petit’s walk, is an event.
It’s such a show-stopping directorial performance that at times Zemeckis competes with his own lead character as its top virtuoso. Thankfully, more often than not, his technical prowess complements that of Petit’s skills. Zemeckis’s talents are just as impressive in those areas that aren’t as obvious as special effects. He has always been very good with actors and he gets nice supporting turns from everyone in the cast. Ben Kingsley is quietly authoritative as Petit’s Paris mentor. James Badge Dale brings a welcome earthiness to Petit’s new friend from NYC who helps him pull off “the coup.” And, in particular, Charlotte Le Bon shines as Petit’s sage and supportive girlfriend. She’s one gorgeous ingénue, that’s for sure, with model looks that are almost as breathtaking as Petit’s feet and feats. But there’s a wonderfully down-to-earth spunk to Le Bon and she makes the ‘girlfriend role’ into something far more crucial.
|Charlotte Le Bon with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movie.|
Of course, the success of this movie comes down to Petit’s famous walk, one he did back and forth no less than three times. To say that Zemeckis and crew deliver is an understatement. Despite Oscar prognosticators already pegging the new STAR WARS chapter as the film to beat for special effects, it really should be given to “The Walk” For rendering something that really happened so flawlessly.
Petit’s walk here is a myriad of things: it’s shocking, scary, funny, and exhilarating, often all at once. The addition of police trying to get him off the wire adds even more tension to the 20-minute set-piece. And yet, despite the marvelous believability of it all, it is actually the spiritual part of Petit’s walk that affects deepest. After he’s aced the walk across the wire, he feels called to stay up there a while. Thus, he convenes with the wind, city and the buildings in a way that is very religious. This is his temple and he indeed is touching God by being so high in the sky.
It’s impossible to tell a story about the Twin Towers that doesn’t take us to that fateful 9-11 day as well. Perhaps Zemeckis glorifies their memory with a few too many slow crane reveals but their majesty is from Petit’s POV as well. Together, he and Zemeckis believe in the idea of looking up and dreaming big, no matter what the adversity. It’s infectious, and likely, the film’s great effect.