Review: “The Walk”

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I didn’t feel like I got to know any of the characters in The Walk particularly well. That is, except for one. No, it isn’t Joseph Gordon Levitt, who leads as Philippe Petit, the ultimate showman with his head so far metaphorically in the clouds that he’d also like to be physically the clouds physically by tightrope-walking between the tops of the Twin Towers. Though Gordon-Levitt brings to life Petit’s natural storytelling abilities and relentless optimism, the movie doesn’t ever attempt to delve into his personal life or psyche (which given his goal, is easily his most interesting and enigmatic aspect). As was the issue I had when he was the subject of 2008 documentary Man On Wire, Petit comes off as a tangible manifestation of whimsy, but not as a real, interesting human being. And Levitt, for all the energy he brings to the project, does no one favors with one of the worst French accents I’ve seen from a main character in a Hollywood movie.

The supporting cast is even worse. Each member of Petit’s crew, a bunch of ragtag malcontents who come together to accomplish the simple, audacious task, are given about one defining personality trait… if they’re lucky. It’s a classic biopic issue — the filmmakers had to include everyone involved in the real world event, regardless of how interesting they all were. And based on their representations in the movie, none of them were very interesting at all. Though sources of basic, good-spirited humor (stoners being stoned, etc.), once the film introduces each of them, it struggles to find anything to do with most of them. This is especially obvious in the case of Charlotte Le Bon, who demonstrates fantastic acting ability but is stuck in the generic, pointless love interest role with no agency of her own.

Instead, the only character — two, technically — that really leaves an impression by the end of the movie, is the World Trade Center. Lovingly recreated with immense technical prowess, the physical texture of the buildings, their incredible height and the awe that they were and are meant to inspire are conveyed wonderfully. At the film’s final stretch, we see the twin towers from two spectacular angles: looking up from the streets of Manhattan at their shining, authoritative frames, or looking straight down at the distant ground from a thin length of wire. In 1974, only the view from the ground was visible, unless of course you were Philippe Petit. In 2015, neither of these sights are accessible. Unless of course, you’re watching The Walk.

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Computer-generated wizardry collides with the deeply felt emotions attached to the towers to create a climax that is at once emotionally and visually engaging. It is the final forty minutes of the movie that director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, and those creepy motion-capture animated movies) reveals that this isn’t really a movie about Petit. It’s a movie about the World Trade Center. And a very important one at that. In that last act, Zemeckis successfully manages to excise all the sadness and pain that is now deeply intertwined with the images of the Twin Towers and to restore, however briefly, the original sense of visceral awe, patriotic joy, and celebration of human progress that the towers were built to represent.

If Hollywood’s current obsession with utilizing CGI to create crumbling buildings and other scenes of urban decimation is a negative unconscious response to the collective trauma of 9/11, The Walk stands alone in using computer graphics not to destroy but to build and to rejoice at the power of creation. Post-9/11 is a vastly overused term. Yet by building a pre-9/11 movie where there is no context to the World Trade Centers besides wonder, Zemeckis has created a post-9/11 movie in the purest, and most optimistic, sense.

Unfortunately, though the film becomes about the World Trade Center and all the meaning that comes with it, there’s still a lot of movie before Zemeckis unveils his true intentions. The first act introduces us to Philippe in his native France, demonstrating his love of showmanship in general and tightrope-walking in specific. None of this works. Without a true sense of who this man is, it’s hard to understand his obsessions. He’s simply a manic cartoon character, charming and charismatic but flat and inaccessible. His relationships with his mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and Annie feel artificial as a direct result of Petit appearing as an artificial man.

(L to R) Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), David (Benedict Samuel), Jeff (Cesar Domboy), Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), Jean Pierre (James Badge Dale), Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Jean Louis (Clement Sibony) and Albert (Ben Schwartz) in TriStar Pictures' THE WALK.

Though at first the simplicity of his goal and the intensity with which he desires to get there reminded me of Whiplash, the film quickly reveals itself to be a much less focused affair, cutting around to different moments in Petit’s life, and returning again and again to a single shot of Gordon Levitt atop Lady Liberty’s torch, recounting his story in an unnecessary but lively framing device. Though unwieldy to say the least, there is at least a playfulness to the performances and an inventiveness to the camerawork (complete with some arresting uses of color and eye-popping 3D effects), that keeps it moving along pleasantly. While familiar and slight, it’s an agreeably old-fashioned start.

Where the film really begins to limp is when Petit and his French friends get to America. Though Petit’s first interaction with one of the towers is one of the film’s best scenes, the middle portion of the film is a long and tedious ‘getting the team together’ sequence that is only here because it really happened. As I mentioned, the characters we meet are only good for a joke or two before their static personalities fade into the background, never to be of real consequence again. We know where it’s all going. Even if someone hadn’t heard of this true story, all of the trailers and all of the posters make it clear that Petit does indeed walk between the towers. So to waste such a large amount of time getting there in service of introducing uninteresting character after uninteresting character is, well, as bad as it sounds.

The Walk is a movie with no character development, hit-or-miss humor, and only sporadically impressive visuals. The Twin Towers are presented with such vivid detail that they appear real on screen, despite all being nothing but computer recreations. Yet at the same time, all of the characters, despite being performed by and based on real people, feel so utterly manufactured and dull (and seriously, that horrific accent doesn’t help). It’s tough to be too hard on a movie that is so light and positive, though. The staggering visual mastery makes this another addition to a slow-growing list of films that need to be viewed in 3D for full effect, alongside Avatar, Hugo, Life of Pi and Gravity, and it’s emotional and patriotic finale makes it a sort of landmark in American cinema.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt ponders his daredevil ambitions in The Walk.

Score: 3 out of 5

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