ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: The Walk
"THE WALK"-- 4 STARS
The definition of "marvel" can be given as a noun or a verb. As a noun, it means "something that causes wonder, admiration, or astonishment." When used as a verb, marvel means "to wonder of be curious about." Several aspects about the true story behind "The Walk" spell out both definitions of marvel. Just hearing about the daredevil feat orchestrated by Frenchman Philippe Petit, walking for an hour on a high-wire 110 stories up across the former twin towers of the World Trade Center, evokes a "He did what?!" head-turning reaction where you acknowledge the wonderment and want to learn more. While not perfect, "The Walk" astonishes enough visually bringing this historic stunt to life to captivate movie-going audiences.
Based on his own memoir, "To Reach the Clouds," Petit's story was previously documented by the award-winning and Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary "Man on Wire." This new biography drama, bursting from a new logo from TriStar Pictures, features Joseph Gordon-Levitt taking on the French accent and language (with training from the man himself) to play the certifiably manic Philippe Petit. "The Walk" is director Robert Zemeckis's first film since 2012's incredible "Flight" and second since a three-film vitae of ground-breaking performance capture films, "The Polar Express," "Beowulf," and "The Christmas Carol." It opens exclusively in advance on IMAX screens before a national release on October 9. Mark Zemeckis down as two-for-two with his winning return to live-action.
Breaking the fourth wall while standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty to present and narrate his story, Levitt as Petit weaves his life-long romantic obsession with dream-seeking and performance. From his humble beginnings as a unicycle-riding troubadour and illegal street performer in Paris, Petit was a self-taught juggler, magician, and wire-walker who always sought to conquer the impossible. He considered wire-walking an art and sought further mentoring from traveling circus patriarch Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), though the elder wire-walker was commonly dismissed by Philippe's impatience to be great.
Springboarding after a successful high-profile wire walk across the two bell towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Petit set his sights on a prodigious and magnificent pair of new skyscrapers that were not yet finished yet, namely the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Convincing his girlfriend Annie and photographer friend Jean-Louis (Charlotte Le Bon and Clement Sibony, both of "The Hundred-Foot Journey" respectively) to join him in America, the trio begin to gather "accomplices," as they call them, for this dangerous and obsessive quest. Through gaining illegal access in and around the construction site of the two skyscrapers, Petit plots and plans his coup.
"The Walk" artfully builds like a caper film, backed by a jazzy musical score. It all inches towards the impending climax of Petit's walk on the wire. Oh, what a frozen moment in time it is! Just as you have likely seen in the IMAX trailers, the centerpiece stunt that occupies the final third of "The Walk" is an exhilarating feat of creative filmmaking and jaw-dropping visual splendor. Even when you know you're watching extremely deep visual effects through 3D IMAX lenses, Zemeckis never lets up on the astounding detail to push the realism. Petit's nerve-wracking and death-defying feat of playful zen and dream fulfillment will take your breath away and leave you on the edge of your seat. The charisma and power of recreating this epic moment is enough to buoy "The Walk" as a must-see big-screen and IMAX experience, far surpassing what "Everest" attempted with IMAX last month.
The flaws for "The Walk" come in the narrative storytelling and supporting ensemble that fail to support the compelling central accomplisment. Voice-overs are par for the course with first-person biography films, but Levitt's full-on talking to the camera with a thick accent is love-it (as showmanship) or hate-it (as annoying). Rank it right next to the questionable Tobey Maguire/Nick Carraway-centered framing device used in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" from two years ago. It's a little too much, as is that aforementioned musical score from long-time Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri. The music can't decide when to support a kitschy caper film or a stirring triumphant drama. The tonal shifts between those themes are jarring and blunt.
Robert Zemeckis has never been known as a great writer equal to his vision as a director. He teams with one of his former editorial assistants, Christopher Browne with his first feature screenplay, on giving a dramatic narrative to "The Walk." The clunky dialogue and weak casting can deter the film's momentum and impact. Behind Levitt, no one stands out and no one looks to be having fun playing their role, other than maybe James Badge Dale as the top Americanized helper on the team. With no one other than Levitt grabbing your attention, "The Walk" can be over-saturated by its central figure. Chances are, that's just how the real Petit would like it. The "Man on Wire" documentary is a recommended companion piece to "The Walk" for those wanting to learn more backstory and see the real man behind the spectacle. The film is available on Netflix streaming and Amazon Prime VOD subscription services. It's excellent homework or follow-up.
What keeps "The Walk" winning is the uncompromising visual artistry at play. This film is a case much like "Gravity" two years ago where the wild and amazing visuals trump hack-ish story delivery. Using the full depth of 3D, immersive visual effects, and professional green-screen digital filmmaking to their fullest extent with a budget under $40 million, every shot, even the little ones, permeates the attention to detail and precision of any other raw historical recreation you're going to see. It starts with Zemeckis's eye for style, but cinematographer Dariusz Wolski might be splitting his own future Oscar vote with his work on both "The Walk" and "The Martian." Even the visual "elephant in the room" of this story featuring the famed World Trade Center buildings that were tragically destroyed during the 2001 terrorist attacks is shined upon with unbridled respect. The buildings themselves exude as much marvel as the feat itself and the final coda of the film stands as a solid love letter to what was lost on that September 11th fourteen years ago.
LESSON #1: EACH PERSON'S DREAM IS BEAUTIFUL TO THEM-- Matching of the to-each-their-own and "NOPE" meme reference recently used in this website's review of "Everest," there's a good chance tightrope walking isn't your dream or thing any more or less than mountain climbing. Most will avoid its danger and call it crazy. To Philippe Petit, to achieve wire-walking, especially on this scale, is a dream of beauty and a place of solace. He's a different man out there on that wire. Being on that edge of death is living for him. That's his joy and he should have it.
LESSON #2: THE IMPOSSIBLE THAT DRIVES AND INSPIRES DAREDEVILS-- This too will sound like it matches "Everest," but the constant question of "The Walk" matches. Why try such a dangerous act? Why choose those buildings? Why even tempt death? Where does the inspiration come from? Petit, like most daredevils, will answer many of those questions with "because it's there" or "because someone said it couldn't be done." To many people cut from that cloth, the largest inspiration for considering these feats artistic or fulfilled dreams is knowing they made the impossible possible. They were likely inspired earlier in life by watching something similarly impossible and want to replicate or do better themselves. Petit and others also know that they could then represent someone else's future inspiration that will some day follow or top them.
LESSON #3: WITNESSING SOMETHING MARVELOUS-- What Petit achieved captured the attention of thousands of eyewitnesses and millions of later readers and followers. Those there knew they saw something special, something to marvel, and something they would never see equaled or topped again in their lifetime. That's a powerful moment to participate and witness. Watch the expressions of the cops waiting to apprehend him on the WTC roof. Their reactions of awe say it all. How Philippe Petit made out after completing his World Trade Center walk shows how much he was more rousing marvel than dangerous menace.