Robert Zemeckis’ quest to push the technical limitations of filmmaking brings him and his crew to the top of the Twin Towers, or at least a computer-generated version of them. The Walk tells the story of how acrobat and high-wire artist Phillippe Petit became obsessed with the iconic skyscrapers, leading to his defining achievement, a wire walk between the North and South Towers in August of 1974.
The director recounts this story with his signature knack for awe-inspiring visuals, often swooping all the way up or down the 110 stories that separated Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the streets of New York City. Cinematically, The Walk reaches stunning heights; however, the inelegance of its script hinders that immersive experience.
Framing the entirety of the action with excessive, obtrusive narration from Gordon-Levitt’s thick, faux French accent, The Walk depicts Petit’s journey from tiny French scamp to magnetic performer as he picks up the tricks of the tightrope trade. Things seem to come easy to Petit, who wins over the allegiance of veteran circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) with two short conversations.
His aggressive chase of an absurd goal becomes the unquestioned pursuit of too many characters far too quickly, though. Petit might be a persuasive conversationalist, but no amount of charm would explain how he manages to amass a group of accomplices for his daring (and criminal) wire walk. Zemeckis continually returns to Petit’s narration to explain the plot as it progresses, even when that progress is obvious from the actions on screen. Several times, The Walk would simply benefit from silence.
Picking up momentum as the film goes along, Zemeckis’ movie comes alive on its way to the top of the Twin Towers. Any chance that the filmmaker has to place Gordon-Levitt on the wire – a skill the actor picked up for the role – is given the full 3D treatment. Here, the 3D helps to emphasize the height of his walks by accentuating the on-screen depth. Though some visual flairs border on gimmickry (like a falling wire that stops just short of the camera), when Petit drops his balancing beam and the bar flies right past, many people in the audience jumped from their seats (myself, embarrassingly, included).
The Walk turns from mildly enjoyable to completely engrossing in its last 45 minutes. The film score adopts a jazzy, heist film aesthetic that adds a layer of suspense to Petit’s so-called “coup.” On the rooftops, Zemeckis pans around for a jaw-dropping look at the 1970s New York skyline that’s at once vivid and understated. The view seems real.
Petit’s high-wire act itself is a joyous conclusion, something that still seems fictional in spite of the photos and first-hand accounts. The Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire, which also portrayed Petit’s 1974 high-rise walk, did a superior job of illustrating the full story that lead Petit to those towers; yet, The Walk makes that surreal experience tangible, a vivid recreation of a spectacularly inimitable moment.
As a filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis has consistently set a high bar for breathtaking imagery. Placing Tom Hanks in old newsreel footage in Forrest Gump shaped a standard for integrating the past into modern historical pictures, and through Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away, and The Polar Express, the filmmaker has occupied himself with forward-thinking projects.
2012’s Flight attempted to integrate an elaborate visual set piece into a humanistic drama. Unfortunately, in beginning the film with such a visceral sequence and not providing the rest of the movie with anything to match the intensity of its opening, Flight was doomed to be seen as a disappointment.
The Walk partially solves this problem by holding off on its best stuff until the end. While there still exists a disparity between the film’s unremarkable biopic elements and the sheer spectacle of its finale, the gap between the two is not drastic. Zemeckis’ latest movie would have benefitted from a tighter script, one that would avoid interrupting the action with unnecessary voiceover. Regardless, he demonstrates the singular power of a blockbuster director with The Walk’s thrilling final few sequences, which present a stirring celebration of human ambition and the wonders made possible through film.
Delivering the most exhilarating film sequence of the year, The Walk is pure, visceral fun despite its flawed, overwritten script.