The maker of such potent crowd-pleasers as Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, and the Back to the Future trilogy, Robert Zemeckis is not necessarily known for his tact or fineness of touch. But it’d be an understatement to say this man knows how to put on a proper spectacle, something that so enhances the sensory aspect of cinema it makes your inner 12-year-old squeal. With The Walk, he’s delivered yet another envelope-pushing technological marvel that isn’t quite as impressive on the human side of things.
We’ve all heard of the titular, unbelievable stunt at the center of the story: in 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt) walked between New York’s then would-be landmark – the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – at the height of 1350 feet. Expanding on that singular achievement which will forever mark Petit’s life, the movie takes us back to his childhood spent performing on the streets of Paris and learning tightrope walking with a circus ringleader. From there he graduated to bigger and ever-higher things, eventually landing in front of the ultimate challenge that beckoned fatefully from across the Atlantic.
Employing a less-than-graceful framing device that repeatedly cuts back to Gordon-Levitt addressing the viewer as a first-person narrator at the top of the Statue of Liberty, the screenplay suffers from a heavy-handedness that has as much to do with its structure as with the abundant Hallmark-ready dialogue. Attempts at mapping a peculiar mind with enough shadows and steam to drive a man to such extreme actions also fall flat. You just never really get inside Petit’s head to figure out the whys.
The film takes a significant turn for the better, however, as it enters the second half with a sharpening focus and increasing fluidity. The long-ish segment where Petit and his crew sneak onto the rooftops of the towers and set up the stage for next morning’s performance is expertly paced, orchestrated without a hiccup. It’s through this preparation work that you first get an idea of the scale and sheer dimension of the operation planned. So when all the pieces are finally set and the hero is about to step out into an almost mythical nothingness, the thrill is very real.
Such thrill continues as Zemeckis and his visual department smartly take full advantage of the 3D photography and floor-to-ceiling IMAX format to recreate probably the most realistic cinematic experience of vertigo ever. The jumbled depth perception, the sweating palm, the buckling knees, your body reacts downright physically to the perfect, all-enveloping illusion brought about by these pictures. And although Zemeckis isn’t successful in explaining Petit the artist, he certainly pulls off the feat of selling this seemingly random, reckless act as art. By the end of his historic stunt, which turns very quiet, introspective near the end, it’s hard not to be touched by the iconic image of the man on a wire, the transcendent calm and the marvel of having witnessed something impossible being achieved.
Overall, The Walk fails at the drama but makes up for a lot of lost ground with its technical pizzazz. Whether or not making you feel the wind at your feet and the tremble in your legs in a darkened theater should be considered a function of cinema, it’s simply nice to hear that familiar squeal from within every once in a while.
The Walk | Directed by Robert Zemeckis (USA 2015) with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony