There’s three very different sections to Robert Zemeckis‘ new film The Walk. One part is fairly underwhelming, one part is fun yet slight, while one part is positively astounding. That makes for a definite mixed bag, but while the movie takes a while to find its footing (no pun intended), when it settles into being a New York love letter, things get pretty good. It’s almost as if Zemeckis felt obligated to spend time with legendary wire walker Philippe Petit in France for a preordained period before getting down to the Manhattan centric events which really seem to have captured his imagination. Zemeckis’s talents for spectacle and visual splendor shortchange lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt a bit, but JGL still gets to deliver a strong performance that stands apart from the wonder of special effects. Is this an Academy Award player? Probably not, unless you’re talking about the technical categories, but stranger things have happened. The final half hour or so of the flick is so breathtaking, that alone makes it worth seeing, so that’s a plus for The Walk. I wasn’t expecting the unevenness of the first third/first half, but once we’re spending time at the World Trade Center, I also wasn’t expecting the power of it all. The Twin Towers get a touching tribute in The Walk, which is well worth seeing. Take it from someone who has a fear of heights…your palms will get sweaty.
This is a biopic of the aforementioned Philippe Petit, who was chronicled in the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire. Philippe (Gordon-Levitt) narrates and guides us through his own story, starting at home in a small French town where he grew up. Always a performer and risk taker, he finds himself kicked out by his parents for circus clown ways, so it’s off to Paris where he first begins to demonstrate his skills on the wire. It’s there that he meets love interest Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), two of his earliest compatriots in pulling off walks. Others like Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and Jeff (César Domboy) are soon along for the ride, which becomes much bumpier once Philippe announces his intentions to go to New York City and place his wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. A daring heist of sorts is then launched, including co-conspirators like J.P. (James Badge Dale) and Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), but eventually it’s just Philippe up in the clouds, having to take that first step. That’s when this film really begins to shine, trust me there.
For someone so enamored with special effects, Zemeckis usually gets strong performances in his films, and while that’s still the case here, Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t quite on the level that was expected. Part of it is being saddled with a French accent that he can’t always pull off, while part of it is the script that has him repeat things far too often. That being said, Gordon-Levitt is believable on the wire and singular enough in his focus that you buy him as this mad genius. It’s not his best performance to date, but it’s more than suitable for the movie. Neither Charlotte Le Bon or Ben Kingsley do too much with their larger supporting roles (they’re essentially likable plot devices), though James Badge Dale does infuse the film with some extra energy once he enters the picture. Badge Dale is best in show in terms of the supporters, which also include the aforementioned César Domboy, Clément Sibony, and Steve Valentine, in addition to Mark Camacho, Benedict Samuel, Ben Schwartz, plus others. Still, when it gets down to it, it’s Gordon-Levitt out there on a limb, both literally and figuratively. Armed with the visuals on display in The Walk, he succeeds.
This is Robert Zemeckis’ second film since his return to live action (the first being Flight), and while he’s sort of taking his Forrest Gump narration playbook too far, he does come up with some of his most moving imagery to date. While the screenplay he co-wrote with Christopher Browne (based on Petit’s book) isn’t particularly memorable, his direction is visually splendid. Working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and some glorious special effects that could be honored in the Best Visual Effects category at the Oscars, Zemeckis really puts us on the wire in a way that has to be seen in order to fully be believed. If I’m shortchanging the wonder I experienced, it’s because it’s hard to actually explain. Buoyed by Alan Silvestri‘s score, your heart soars as Philippe walks. This is a directorial success for Zemeckis more so than a writing success, though towards the end there are a few lines about the towers that may very well bring a tear to your eye. They did to mine.
Overall, you just have to get through a bland opening patch in order to get to something worthwhile in The Walk. It’s not always successful, and you do have to invest your time in order to get to the good stuff, but oh man is the good stuff worth it. Once JGL takes his first step, the final sequence of the film is the most exciting thing I’ve seen all year. The full product is just good instead of great, but the movie does overcome that. Less a Gordon-Levitt vehicle and more a showcase of Zemeckis, this is an adventure that I will remember as a tribute to part of what New York City lost on 9/11. Give The Walk a chance and I think you’ll appreciate what’s on display here…
–Thoughts? Discus in the comments!