Not for Viewers Who Fear Heights
Donít look now but thereís yet another film currently showing in theaters with a strong central character not played by a human. Everest Director Baltasar KormŠkurís mountain carried that film as an imposing juxtaposition that perfectly highlights manís insignificance in the world, while the harsh alien landscape in The Martian is as imposing a movie villain as youíll ever see. Now itís Robert Zemeckisís turn to anthropomorphize in The Walk, a film recounting the amazing feat of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who defied gravity -- and authority -- by stringing a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center back in 1974 and tightroping between them for nearly an hour. The feat effectively transformed the buildings New Yorkers callously referred to as filing cabinets into something alive and very poetic.
What you get out of The Walk -- and subsequently how much you like the film -- will depend greatly on whether or not you saw James Marshís Oscar-winning 2008 documentary called Man on Wire. As expected, the two are very different films, but familiarity with the event, its significance, and its eventual outcome strips The Walk of much of its suspense and intrigue. Remove the event itself and really all thatís left is its historical relevance and getting to know the ďartistĒ behind the feat. Unfortunately, we learned more about Petit, his preparations, and motivations in the documentary, and Zemeckis does little to frame the story in a distinct place and time.
The Walk opens with Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking to the camera in a thick French Parisian accent as the downtown Manhattan skyline glows eerily behind him. As the camera pulls out, we see heís standing on the torch balcony of the Statue of Liberty. Get it? Both are gifts from the French. Subtlety has never been one of Zemeckisís strong suits.
Itís from this vantage point that Petit narrates the story, giving us some insight into his inner thoughts about the upcoming feat which he lovingly refers to as his coup. What is meant to lend a fairytale, fable-like charm to the story as Petit talks to the camera, actually comes off like a cheap gimmick and blatant use of green screen CGI.
We follow Petitís life from the beginning as a street performer in 1960s Paris where he learns to tightrope under the tutelage of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) a famous-at-the-time Czechoslovakian highwire performer. Itís also here where Petit falls in love with Annie Challis (Charlotte Le Bon), another street performer with whom he shares his most private dreams and aspirations.
One of those dreams involves his walk between the twin towers, an obsession which consumes the next six years of his life as he formulates an elaborate plan. The Walk, at this point, turns into somewhat of a heist film and the segments of clandestine preparations represent some of the filmís most entertaining moments as he scouts it out Mission: Impossible style. He spends weeks mapping out the grounds, watching workers come and go, and familiarizing himself with schedules and patterns. Petit and his motley crew of abettors, including James Badge Daleís jean-Pierre, exploit the fact that the towers are under construction. Through some pretty sneaky maneuvers, they are able to get their numerous crates of equipment to the towerís rooftop. The suspense to this point is minimal however as getting caught scoping out the World Trade Center in a pre-911 world would likely only mean an arrest and short detention. My, how things have changed.
Once Petitís walk begins however, the danger cranks up to maximum levels and so does the audienceís anxiety. The actual walk sequence is as gripping as it gets, enhanced by the eye-popping 3D effects that open up in a huge iMax envelope. Save for a few cheap gotcha moments as things jump at the camera, itís worth the premium to experience it in 3D. The camera zooms around and under Petit as he slides his feet onto the cable and shifts his balance from the buildingís edge onto the wire. Only a handful of still photographs exists of Petitís real-life walk so itís quite thrilling -- and actually a bit genuinely unsettling -- to see it unfold from the first-person perspective. Warning: those with acrophobia had better take heed. Your fear of heights will be pushed to the limits as will your white-knuckled grip on the armrest.
Though itís not fair to compare the two, The Walk is an anemic comparison to Man on Wire. Or perhaps itís just unfortunate that Man on Wire came first. Either way though, Zemeckisís script, with writing help from Christopher Browne, tries to build character and provide fulfilling motivation on the buildup to the filmís climax but always seems in too much of a hurry to get to the money shot. The filmís tone is harmless and innocent, though a bit misguided. The real star of the show, however, is the World Trade Center, with its ghostly appearance that still evokes heavy emotions to this day.
(Released by Sony Pictures Releasing and rated ďPGĒ for thematic elements involving perilous situations and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.