There are some moments that you will remember for a lifetime, and when it comes to thinking about the World Trade Center, there is not a single American who will immediately arrive at happy thoughts. But there was a time in the early 1970s, just as the Twin Towers were being built, when a street performer captured the hearts and minds of millions after (illegally, mind you) he walked and performed on a tightrope attached high in the sky, between the North and South Towers. The man’s name was Phillipe Petit, and The Walk (opening today exclusively in IMAX theaters and wide a week later) attempts to tell his story.
Director Robert Zemeckis has always had a knack for the wondrous. From his earliest films like Romancing the Stone or Back to the Future, he has always made the movie-going experience fun…with movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express and Beowulf, he has also shown an equal interest in making technological advancements with cinema and has been a pioneer of CGI for years. Always one to blaze the trail and not to follow it, Zemeckis’s most recent film, Flight, was more of a character study, although it arrived with a CG-heavy near-plane-crash sequence that was vintage Zemeckis.
With The Walk, he is up to his old tricks and once again raises the bar for what can be done on a movie screen. Serious filmmakers (I’ll leave that distinction up to you as to who is included in that) have recently tired of “over-the-top” special effects in movies…and so have much of the audience. Instead, films like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, or Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, have started applying these technological advances to more reality-based story-telling…and with great success. The Walk is in some ways very comparable to Gravity, in that it is a movie meant to be seen in IMAX or definitely in theaters, and that it is an absolutely stunning achievement in visual narrative…at least in portions.
The problem with The Walk, is that it tries to be more than what it is, and it takes way too long to get its protagonist, Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, featuring a comical Pepe le Pew-style French accent) to get up on that wire. Some backstory works and is necessary, like when Petit infiltrates a circus and is then mentored by tightrope expert, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). Other stuff, like his recruitment of a gang of dweebs to aide in his “coup” atop the Towers – and a romance that goes nowhere with young musician Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) – seems like cheap filler. Once you hear Petit’s story, you will agree that the film should be about his Twin Tower experience…the movie though, decides that the walk should only be the main event, stuffing the under-cards with less-than-worthy distractions.
But mind you, despite the first meandering, stumbling hour, once Petit does get to New York City, it becomes well worth the wait. In fact, it’s at that point that the movie regenerates itself as a heist film, where Petit and his crew study just how to “crack” the vault…which in this analogy refers to just how they will pull off Petit’s amazing tower walk. For those that saw the Oscar-winning documentary on Petit, “Man on Wire,” some of this doesn’t come as any surprise and ends up being ripe for dramatic interpretation. But it is quite fascinating (and a scary commentary on security at the World Trade Center) just what Petit had to go through in order to achieve his incredibly ridiculous and equally mesmerizing life-long dream of walking on a wire between the two tallest man-made points on the planet.
The memory of the Twin Towers looms largely over the entirety of The Walk. But it harkens back to a time where we could look to the sky and be amazed. Petit’s walk actually popularized the Towers, which at the time were seen as somewhat of a blocky eye sore. But Petit’s story captures those child-like thrills, about how anything is possible in America, and how one man can achieve his dreams. It’s a story that seems right in line with what Zemeckis has been focused on throughout his body of work: An obsessive examination of the exact point where magic and reality collide, and the sense of wonder that is left in its wake.
Genre: Adventure, Biography, Drama
Run Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes, Rated PG
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Benedict Samuel
Co-Written and Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Flight, A Christmas Carol, Beowulf, The Polar Express, Cast Away, Contact, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future I, II and III)
Opens locally exclusively in IMAX Theaters on Friday, September 30, 2015 (check for show times).