Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Robert Zemeckis
Written by:
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne. Based on the book "To Reach the Clouds" by Philippe Petit
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Guillaume Baillargeon
Length:   123 minutes
Released:   100915
Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking
“...a good film that yearns to be great but never quite manages to reach such heights until the knockout conclusion."

"The Walk" is a film that offers viewers a highly questionable first act, a second that, while technically proficient, has been done before and better and a third that provides some of the most spellbinding and audacious moments of pure visual storytelling in recent memory. In other words, your enjoyment of it will depend to a large extent on whether you think that the absolute triumph of its last 20 minutes or so are enough to make up for the occasional missteps of the first 100. To these eyes, they do.

During its short lifespan, the original World Trade Center hosted a number of strange and surreal occurrences but perhaps none was more astonishing than the tight wire walk by Frenchman Philippe Petit. The event took place during the morning of August 7, 1974 and lasted 45 minutes with Petit risking life and limb 1370 feet up to traverse a 200-foot long cable bridging the span between the Twin Towers. Recounting his tale from a perch atop the Statue of Liberty, Petit first discusses his early years, beginning from when he first witnesses a tightrope act at a circus and discovered what would become his obsession. This would lead him to the leader of the circus, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who would share with him the tricks that he had learned during a lifetime in the tightrope trade, though at a cost. Petit begins his career on the streets of Paris, where he acquires a small fan base and the love of street musician Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and first tastes defeat when a walk over a small lake ends in failure. Undaunted, he moves on to a more audacious plan and successfully strings a wire between the belfries of the cathedral at Notre Dame--though he is arrested afterwards, the stunt is otherwise a triumph all around.

The real dream for Petit is to go to New York and somehow do the exact same thing at the World Trade Center, something that has been gnawing at him ever since seeing a picture of the under-construction buildings in a magazine. Now that the buildings are almost completed, the time has come to do it and Petit, along with Annie and two other accomplices, photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) and agoraphobic mathematician Jeff (Cesar Domboy), set off for New York. Petit, aided by a number of disguises, begins casing all areas of the two buildings in order to create a plan of attack and suffers a nasty injury along the way when he steps on a nail at a construction site. Along the way, he acquires a couple of additional American acquaintances, including an electronics salesman (James Badge Dale) and an insurance salesman who actually recognizes Petit from the Notre Dame stunt and possesses an element that makes him an essential part of the team-- an office in the North Tower where people can hide until nightfall. Once that happens, Petit and his group struggle to get everything set up without attracting the attention of security guards or of anyone below in the streets. Spoiler Alert--it finally gets done in the nick of time and Petit at long last steps off the roof of the South Tower and into the history books.

Even after putting all the technical challenges of trying to recreate Petit's walk in cinematic terms aside for the time being, anyone daring to bring this story to the screen would have to face no less than three major obstacles that might have caused most people to bow out immediately. For starters, the film tells a true story that everyone pretty much knows the ending of, even if they may not exactly know all of the details of how it get there. More significantly, it is a story that has already been told before in "Man on Wire," the extraordinary 2008 documentary that told the entire story of Petit's mad dream through a combination of interviews with the participants, archival footage and reenactments. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that any movie made today that involves the World Trade Center has to in some way deal with the fact that, unlike the characters on the screen, we are painfully aware of the tragic fate of those two towers. With his fascination for dealing with popular culture of the latter half of the 20th century, his willingness to experiment with new technologies to give viewers sights that they have never seen before and his sheer audacity as a filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis was probably the perfect choice to attempt to transform Petit's story into a narrative feature.

In a way, Zemeckis is attempting to do the same thing that Petit did more than four decades earlier--he is trying to dazzle and stun audiences with a bit of performance that could end disastrously if something goes terribly wrong--and like Petit, he encounters a number of problems along the way. One big problem is that the first two-thirds of the film are really uneven from a dramatic standpoint. The stuff in Paris charting Petit's early days goes on for a long time and while there are a few cute elements here and there--Gallic versions of then-contemporary pop hits and an argument between Petit and Annie that is done in mime--it doesn't really bring anything to the table. The stuff in New York involving Petit and the subterfuge that he employed to infiltrate the buildings and prepare for his stunt is livelier but anyone who happened to see "Man on Wire"--which treated this aspect of the story like a breathlessly exciting heist film--will find themselves thinking that the earlier film did it in a far more gripping and engaging manner. This is not to say that Zemeckis muffs this part--a lot of this section is quite fun indeed--but compared to what "Man on Wire" was able to accomplish despite a presumably much smaller budget, it can't help but come up a little short.

And yet, all those problems are cast aside once Petit gets on the wire and Zemeckis gives viewers the nearly 20-minute-long money shot that they have been clamoring to see. Although Zemeckis doesn't hurry this portion of the movie, it doesn't play out in real time. (It takes about 20 minutes instead of the full 45.) There's a surprising amount of tension for an event whose outcome is well-documented and this ability to wring suspense from a chunk of established history is proof of the filmmaker's aptitude. Whatever flaws The Walk exhibits in the early-going are more than counterbalanced during the second half. Using an array of cinematic tricks, Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have created a stunner of a sequence that manages to keep viewers on the edge of their seats even though they presumably know how it turns out in the end thanks to a series of seemingly impossible camera moves and angles that put viewers directly in Petit's shore at certain points. There have been reports from early screenings that some viewers have become physically ill from some of the visual flourishes designed to remind viewers of how high Petit is working--a development that probably warmed Zemeckis's William Castle-loving heart--but despite having a pronounced thing about heights, I personally never felt queasy but those with vertigo-like tendencies might want to think twice about seeing it. Throughout his career, Zemeckis has pushed the boundaries of what filmmaking technology is capable of and the wire-walking sequence seen here is destined to go down as one of his best. Does the 3D help? Almost certainly. A big screen, however, is mandatory. The Walk is another in a growing number of films that will have a muted impact in an average home theater and isn't worth seeing on a tablet or phone.

There are no acting Oscar nominations waiting in the wings for The Walk. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a solid job portraying Philippe but, even in his best moments, he plays second fiddle to the Twin Towers and Zemeckis' wizardry. The Walk deserves a boatload of technical awards - it's a triumph of special effects and should be recognized as such. It's two-thirds of a great film but the slow start and unremarkable first hour hold it back. Still, for those who buy into the precept that "good things are worth waiting for," The Walk unquestionably delivers. "The Walk" is a good film that yearns to be great but never quite manages to reach such heights until the knockout conclusion. As a human drama, it has elements that don't work, subplots that go nowhere. On the other hand, it does manage to understand why a person would voluntarily put themselves in such a dangerous position, it gives all the thrills and jolts that a viewer can handle during its climax and it essentially serves as an elaborate and family-friendly hymn to the power of imagination and the memory of the World Trade Center. For 27 years, the World Trade Center was viewed as implacable and impervious - even the detonation of a bomb in its guts did no lasting harm. This is the image Zemeckis recreates. His Twin Towers are as tangible as the real ones were. Not since King Kong have the buildings received this much screen time and, when John Guillerman rolled cameras in 1975-76, he wasn't forced to rely on computer-generated reconstructions. Yes, "Man on Wire" is an essential film--one that should be required viewing for anyone watching this one--but while a lesser enterprise, "The Walk" is still exciting enough to warrant a recommendation.

THE WALK © 2015 Sony Pictures Entertainment
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2015 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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