Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears his best Frenchman in Robert Zemeckis’ innovative tribute to Philippe Petit and the Twin Towers.
It would be an exaggeration to compare Robert Zemeckis’ directing of this film to the literal high-wire act it documents, as this film is neither an original or unique feat (Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers was documented in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire), nor is it particularly risky in what it attempts, but as a filmmaker who has lost much of his dramatic credibility due to a series of unwelcome cinematic experiments over the past decade, whatever risk Zemeckis did take in making The Walk will undoubtedly pay off: this is a film that’s big, bold and ultimately a marvel to behold.
The Walk‘s success lies largely in its adhering to the Mission: Impossible formula. We get 80 minutes of plotting, scheming and expositing followed by 30 of a spectacular action scene. Both sides of The Walk are equally fun. Narrator Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, standing aloft the Statue of Liberty before a constantly changing New York backdrop) catches us up on his rise through the ranks of the Paris street-performing and clowning scenes. Veteran dancer JGL does a great job with the physical work- though his French accent is tough to buy- and Ben Kingsley makes an appearance as a Senior Clown, but it’s Zemeckis’ use of 3D in scenes of rain-soaked unicycling that are the most impressive component, reminiscent of Scorsese’s 2011 Hugo in its visually-immersive portrayal of the city. Petit acquires a girlfriend and a small band of cohorts, and he begins planning his Stunt of a Lifetime in New York. The middle act could have been unbearably dull under different hands, but Zemeckis keeps the pace consistently up through use of a great soundtrack, small-scale crises and regular tricks of cinematography. There’s glorious detail in every washed-out shot, one of many factors contributing to the very 70s atmosphere of the film (the TriStar logo, followed by White-On-Black credits set this off from the start).
As August 7, 1974 draws closer, Petit’s obsession with perfecting his stunt leads him to a mild case of madness. JGL and the script disappoint in this regard, doing little with the imminent insanity of the character and merely resorting to “loony Frenchman” behaviour to convey his state. Some of the supporting characters, particularly vertiginous maths teacher Jeff (César Domboy), are physiologically revealed with far more tact, and this allows tension to mount in the scenes leading up to The Walk itself.
Aaaah…. Petit’s actual Walk…. so beautiful, so graceful, so… DEAR GOD WATCH OUT YOU FOOL! If you thought Gravity was intense, wait until you seen the heart-pounding scene of physical danger Zemeckis has in store for you. Granted, it may not equal Alfonso Cuarón’s film in its freshness or ambition, but it certainly does in its grip of the audience’s lungs. See this on the biggest screen available to you, or you won’t have truly seen it. The Walk, after all, may not have the finest artists in front of the camera, but in its depiction of art, vanity and self-confidence as a life source, it reaches every corner of the cinema screen. Isn’t this what giant white screens are for?