Whether or not you’ve read Philippe Petit’s book, “To Reach the Clouds” (for which The Walk is based), or seen the 2008 documentary Man On Wire, which takes an in-depth look into Philippe Petit the man, as well as the amazing tightrope act that occurred on August 6, 1974, you basically know how The Walk will play out. However, even though that fateful walk is an awe-inspiring moment, one you wish you could have witnessed when it actually happened, it’s not the end of the film that matters; it’s the journey, and Zemeckis does a terrific job formulating the high wire act that Petit must make to get to his point of infamy.
On the surface, the walk the title refers to is of course the tightrope walk Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes between the world trade center towers a few months prior to their completion. At the time the tallest buildings in the world, doing something so dangerous (and incredibly illegal) was Petit’s moment to prove he was more than just a silly circus act — he was a artistic performer, one who wasn’t afraid to go beyond the boundaries of what was considered safe in order to dream to walk among the clouds. But under the surface of that incredibly dangerous act of artistic expression lies the real heart of The Walk, which becomes a metaphor for how we all should be living life. According to Petit’s mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), it doesn’t matter what you do on the wire if you fail to complete your final three steps. In other words, it’s not how you get to where you want to be, its what you do, despite all odds, with those final three steps that ultimately make you who you are.
Zemeckis has given us some incredible movies over the years, from one of the most perfectly crafted films in Back To The Future, to the engaging fascination of Forrest Gump and the zany artistry of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, among others. But, with The Walk, Zemeckis takes a risk of his own, walking a high-wire act between respecting the memory of those who were lost when the towers fell in the 9/11 attack by honoring them with a story of bravery and conviction, and disrespecting their lives by glorifying the possibility of someone falling from the towers to their death. By taking those final three steps and making the movie he was compelled to make, Zemeckis is able to give us a very authentic homage in remembrance of what those two towers meant to not only New York, but to the world. What Petit accomplished helped change the essence of the towers from being gaudy obstructions to the grandeur of hope and destiny.
Gordon-Levitt, is fun, energetic and mesmerizing, creating a genuine representation of a man who not only needed to risk his life (and his freedom) for something his soul deeply desired, but who was riddled with conflict and doubt about how this act would affect those he chose to share the experience with, not to mention the innate fear of failing, which would cost him more deeply than he’s ready to admit. He helps Zemeckis keep the pace of the film light and quick, making sure we are never bored as we wait for the main event to occur. The supporting cast, including Charlotte Le Bon as Petit’s girlfriend, Annie, and Clément Sibony as one of his many accomplices (and official photographer), also does a fine job in capturing a free, swift essence that honestly bonds the audience to Petit. The chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Le Bon isn’t quite as electric as it is comfortable, but that’s enough to keep us fascinated in how the two will grow to love one another and keep us interested in whether or not the death-defying artistic act will hold them together or break them apart.
If there was one thing that I felt kept Zemeckis from taking that final step to instant perfection, it’s the awkward narration that Zemeckis chooses to inter-cut with the rest of the film. In the beginning, it’s actually quite fun and somewhat necessary, as Petit stands on the torch of the Statue of Liberty to help us understand who he is and the journey he took to get to where he was. As I said, Gordon-Levitt is very whimsical, and his infectious energy keeps you smiling without even trying. But as the movie moves forward, having Petit continue to describe what’s going on and how he’s feeling in any given moment starts to become a detriment to the film by taking us out of the movie itself far too often. No more so is this apparent than in the actual walk itself. The scene of Petit walking between the two towers is so gloriously captured, it makes us feel as if we are there, on the wire, feeling the fear and trepidation and excitement that goes along with it all. But Zemeckis continues to cut away to revisit Petit on the Statue of Liberty, draining all of the power and emotion of the moment, forcing us to have to recapture those feelings every few minutes rather than allowing us to truly live what Petit lived. After all, life (walking the wire) isn’t about living in fear; it’s about overcoming your fears to express something that’s ultimately more than yourself.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Crimson Peak, Bridge of Spies, Goosebumps and Woodlawn. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.