Having seen James Marsh’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Man on Wire, and having read high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds, I couldn’t imagine how director Robert Zemeckis could possibly find a unique yet worthy way of retelling and honoring this incredible true story. Lo and behold, he pulled it off with The Walk, turning Petit’s “coup” into an especially harrowing, entertaining and heartfelt feature film.
Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) always had a thing for magic, gymnastics, juggling and performing, but when he discovers high-wire walking, his aspirations go through the roof. He’s determined to find the perfect place to put his wire and then one day, in the dentist’s office, he finds it – right between the towers of the World Trade Center. With the help of his mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and a team comprised of close friends and unlikely associates, Philippe sets out to pull off his coup and walk across his wire 110 stories up.
Having a tough time buying Gordon-Levitt as a Frenchman in the film’s promotional campaign? Sadly that never really goes away. The Walk opens with Gordon-Levitt as Petit talking to the audience from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It’s laughable at first and makes The Walk feel more like a cheesy theme park ride rather than a quality feature, but it doesn’t take long for Gordon-Levitt’s undeniable charm to kick in. He never hits the point where you look at him and think “Petit” rather than “Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Petit,” but there’s so much honesty and energy to his work that it’s easy to get swept up in his showmanship.
The movie definitely focuses on Philippe’s determination and talent, but it certainly doesn’t ignore the fact that he could also be extremely hotheaded and selfish. The Walk easily could have been all about the walk itself, but because Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne take the time to show how Philippe’s behavior affects the people around him, the movie functions as a strong character journey as well.
Speaking of his companions, Philippe has many, but James Badge Dale and César Domboy are the scene-stealers. Dale steps in as JP, a salesman Philippe meets in New York who winds up becoming one of his most valuable accomplices. Dale completely loses himself in the role, expertly adopting JP’s persuasive, quick-talking style and dishing out a good deal of the film’s most successful one-liners. Domboy plays Jean-François, aka Jeff. He’s introduced to Philippe through a mutual friend and is the most unlikely member of the “World Trade Center Association.” He’s completely dedicated to helping Philippe fulfill his dream, but the problem is, he’s afraid of heights. Jeff is a quiet, unassuming guy, but Domboy has a very natural, appealing on-screen presence that pays off big time when he finally gets his chance to shine during the big rigging sequence.
Kingsley has a handful of memorable moments as Papa Rudy, the leader of the famous Omankowsky Troupe. There’s definitely something familiar about his mentor/mentee relationship with Philippe, but there’s more than enough nuance and high-wire walking particulars in his lessons to make their connection engaging and unique. As for Le Bon, she’s certainly got chemistry with Gordon-Levitt and manages to sell Annie as a real person rather than just Philippe’s girlfriend. The movie doesn’t bother to address how the coup affects their relationship until the very, very end, but that’s definitely the result of the need to shape the narrative for the screen. It is an interesting scenario, but it doesn’t belong in Zemeckis’ interpretation of the story and the one subtle reference he makes to it is effective enough.
When Gordon-Levitt first steps out on screen and starts preaching to the audience in his French accent, while posing on the Statue of Liberty’s torch nonetheless, I thought the movie was going to be total nonsense. However, Zemeckis proved me wrong quick enough through his firm handle on the tone, style and pacing of the film. There’s something about the way he shoots Paris that feels too clean and fairytale-like, but otherwise,The Walk is especially well shot and edited before it hits the absolutely astounding wire-walk sequence. The Walk could be one of the most intense IMAX 3D experiences out there, but a big reason Philippe’s trek across that wire is so nerve-wracking is because of how clearly all the details are presented. Not only are we with Philippe as he collects all the important measurements and tools for his coup, but then there’s the elaborate rigging scene where you get to see Philippe and Jeff put it all to use. By the time he takes his first step out on that wire, you’re right there with him in every respect. Zemeckis’ use of IMAX 3D undoubtedly enhances the event, but it’s the strong performances, storytelling and shot selection that make the movie’s big moment especially immersive.
The Walk is a high quality crowdpleaser. It’s big, bold, beautiful and zips through the wildly inspiring narrative with a powerful amount of momentum. Zemeckis delivers big when it comes to the use of the IMAX 3D technology, but what makes The Walk far more than a quick thrill is Zemeckis’ respectful and heartfelt approach to telling Philippe’s story, and especially what the Twin Towers mean to him, an aspect of the film that will undoubtedly strike a chord with many.