As a girl growing up in New York City I often accompanied my father to his office on weekends. It was an adventure to go the financial district, the dark towering canyons of lower Manhattan when it was sleepy and quieter than it was during the work week. It also meant that I got to watch the building of the World Trade Center Twin Towers. I watched them rise from a pit in the ground to incomprehensible heights. The ribbed facade on the buildings gave a thrilling illusion when you stood against them and looked up; it was as if the towers were bending over you. The creation of those buildings is part of my personal New York history and with that goes the day a man stretched a wire from one tower to the other and walked across it, apparently without a care in the world. It was pure magic. It was magic even on the local news where we watched and gaped and wondered who in their right mind would take such a risk?
Philippe Petit was 24 years old when he accomplished that feat. Years in the planning and highly illegal, which made the whole thing even more appealing, he was a man driven by a dream, an obsession and a passion so supreme he was more than willing to risk his life to accomplish it. I think it is worth noting here that there are three significant films out this fall about drive, obsession and commitment: EVEREST, PAWN SACRIFICE and now THE WALK. Unfortunately the third strikes out.
Petit is an highly unusual man, which should come as no surprise. Every second of his life was put towards making ‘the coup’ as he called it. One of the most memorable, meaningful and extreme art acts of the 20th century is no circus act, and yet that is precisely how THE WALK treats Petit and the event itself. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a talented actor. He can provide drama just as competently as great humor. For artists their art is is their very being, their life, and even the darkest moments of humanity and strife can contain moments of unintentional humor. THE WALK tries so hard to be lighthearted and adventurous that is feels like a Disney kid’s movie. Petit has an unwavering confidence and, in ways arrogance. Yet the script and direction of JGL in THE WALK has him come off as a buffoon – a cartoon character even. He is unable to engage us in a personal way and while we do not need to like him per se, we do need to be held in awe of him, to desperately want him to succeed, and it takes Director Robert Zemeckis far too long to evoke that.
Standing on the ledge around the Statue of Liberty’s torch, a wildly obvious and unimaginative visual metaphor, JGL as Petit breaks ‘the fourth wall’ as we say, speaking directly to us, the audience, in a first person narrative. He is animated beyond belief in what I believe is meant to covey passion and magic but fails to do so. The art direction and cinematography are lovely and do have a fantastical quality reminiscent of the fanciful and gorgeous film HUGO (2011). Cinematography Dariusz Wolski is known for creating incredible visual worlds (the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN films, PROMETHEUS) and the look and effects in THE WALK are truly astounding. They are the best quality of the film, but even so, they are not enough to make it impactful. With those mind blowing effects comes a word of caution: If you have any sensitivity to heights, the film is terrifying. There was more than one scene where I had to avert my gaze (and I am pretty hardy) and the gentleman next to me was in danger of vomiting. The effects are so real that the anxiety is less exciting (think RUSH) and far more agonizing (hateful amusement park ride).
The supporting cast is serviceable with Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy, Charlotte Le Bon as Petit’s girlfriend-accomplice Annie Allix, and a nice assortment of character actors rounding out his band of co-conspirators. Director Zemeckis however misses the mark. Stories of heroic, outrageous and extraordinary human accomplishments are told to inspire, to invoke our own passion and drive. They need to be infectious and irresistible regardless of the feat upon which the film may focus. That is accomplished through the person, not the act itself, and sadly Petit is not presented as inspiring. Rather he is drowned under the numerous arguments about his possible ‘craziness.’ In the end THE WALK does provide us with a profound appreciation of the dedication, planning and extraordinary work inherent in Petit’s act. It is also a loving tribute to the towers of my youth which came to transcend all personal stories and become iconographic the world over. As we are moved by the final gleaming vision of the Towers, I longed to be as moved by the incredible story of Philippe Petit.(2.5 / 5)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz
Running Time: 123 minutes
THE WALK Movie Review