Walk, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/29/15 20:14:28

"Frog On A Wire"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"The Walk" is a film that offers viewers a highly questionable first act, a second that, while technically proficient, has been done before and better and a third that provides some of the most spellbinding and audacious moments of pure visual storytelling in recent memory. In other words, your enjoyment of it will depend to a large extent on whether you think that the absolute triumph of its last 20 minutes or so are enough to make up for the occasional missteps of the first 100. To these eyes, they do but while it is all worth it in the end, the journey to get there is sometimes a bit rough and also requires viewers to deal with one of the more bizarre and occasionally off-putting performances to anchor a major motion picture that I can easily recall seeing.

The film tells the story of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a French wire-walker who stunned the world in August, 1974 when he managed to string a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked between them 110 stories above the ground. Recounting his tale from a perch atop the Statue of Liberty, Petit first discusses his early years, beginning from when he first witnesses a tightrope act at a circus and discovered what would become his obsession. This would lead him to the leader of the circus, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, sporting an accent that sounds as if it could have originated from any and all countries in the EU and some that do not currently exist for good measure), who would share with him the tricks that he had learned during a lifetime in the tightrope trade, though at a cost. Petit begins his career on the streets of Paris, where he acquires a small fan base and the love of street musician Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and first tastes failure when a walk over a small lake ends in failure. Undaunted, he moves on to a more audacious plan and successfully strings a wire between the belfries of the cathedral at Notre Dame--though he is arrested afterwards, the stunt is otherwise a triumph all around.

The real dream for Petit is to go to New York and somehow do the exact same thing at the World Trade Center, something that has been gnawing at him ever since seeing a picture of the under-construction buildings in a magazine. Now that the buildings are almost completed, the time has come to do it and Petit, along with Annie and two other accomplices, photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) and agoraphobic mathematician Jeff (Cesar Domboy), set off for New York. Petit, aided by a number of disguises, begins casing all areas of the two buildings in order to create a plan of attack and suffers a nasty injury along the way when he steps on a nail at a construction site. Along the way, he acquires a couple of additional American acquaintances, including an electronics salesman (James Badge Dale) and an insurance salesman who actually recognizes Petit from the Notre Dame stunt and possesses two elements that make him an essential part of the team--a mustache of Dali-esque proportions and an office in the North Tower where people can hide until nightfall. Once that happens, Petit and his group struggle to get everything set up without attracting the attention of security guards or of anyone below in the streets. Spoiler Alert--it finally get done in the nick of time and Petit at long last steps off the roof of the South Tower and into the history books.

Even after putting all the technical challenges of trying to recreate Petit's walk in cinematic terms aside for the time being, anyone daring to bring this story to the screen would have to face no less than three major obstacles that might have caused most people to bow out immediately. For starters, the film tells a true story that everyone pretty much knows the ending of, even if they may not exactly know all of the details of how it get there. More significantly, it is a story that has already been told before in "Man on Wire," the extraordinary 2008 documentary that told the entire story of Petit's mad dream through a combination of interviews with the participants, archival footage and reenactments. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that any movie made today that involves the World Trade Center has to in some way deal with the fact that, unlike the characters on the screen, we are painfully aware of the tragic fate of those two towers. With his fascination for dealing with popular culture of the latter half of the 20th century, his willingness to experiment with new technologies to give viewers sights that they have never seen before and his sheer audacity as a filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis was not only the perfect choice to attempt to transform Petit's story into a narrative feature, I literally cannot think of another one who could have been even an adequate #2 on the list of potential directors.

In a way, Zemeckis is attempting to do the same thing that Petit did more than four decades earlier--he is trying to dazzle and stun audiences with a bit of performance that could end disastrously if something goes terribly wrong--and like Petit, he encounters a number of problems along the way. One big problem is that the first two-thirds of the film are really uneven from a dramatic standpoint. The stuff in Paris charting Petit's early days goes on for a long time and while there are a few cute elements here and there--Gallic versions of then-contemporary pop hits and an argument between Petit and Annie that is done in mime--it doesn't really bring anything to the table other than an excuse for Ben Kingsley to ham it up more than usual, if such a thing is possible. The stuff in New York involving Petit and the subterfuge that he employed to infiltrate the buildings and prepare for his stunt is livelier but anyone who happened to see "Man on Wire"--which treated this aspect of the story like a breathlessly exciting heist film--will find themselves thinking that the earlier film did it in a far more gripping and engaging manner. This is not to say that Zemeckis muffs this part--a lot of this section is quite fun indeed--but compared to what "Man on Wire" was able to accomplish despite a presumably much smaller budget, it can't help but come up a little short.

The real question mark, and the aspect of the film that is most likely to divide audiences, is the flamboyant performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, specifically the incredibly thick French accent that he has employed here. To be sure, the real-life Petit is quite a character--yes, his accent is pretty heavy as well--and any actor trying to play him runs the risk of coming across like a cartoon. Gordon-Levitt certainly commits to the characterization but it gets old pretty quick, especially thanks to the decision to have Petit tell his story directly to the audience throughout. Perhaps it would have been better if Zemeckis had cast an unknown actor who could have given a similar turn without constantly reminding the audience of the goofiness of his accent every time he opens his mouth (and if there is one thing that Petit does well besides wire-walking, it is opening his mouth). If not that, perhaps the film should have just had Gordon-Levitt play it in his normal voice and assume that the audiences would realize that he was supposed to realize that he was French in the way that we knew that Sean Connery was supposed to be Russian in "The Hunt for Red October."

And yet, all those problems are cast aside once Petit gets on the wire and Zemeckis gives viewers the nearly 20-minute-long money shot that they have been clamoring to see. Using an array of cinematic tricks that I cannot even begin to understand or explain, Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have created a stunner of a sequence that manages to keep viewers on the edge of their seats even though they presumably know how it turns out in the end thanks to a series of seemingly impossible camera moves and angles that put viewers directly in Petit's shore at certain points. There have been reports from early screenings that some viewers have become physically ill from some of the visual flourishes designed to remind viewers of how high Petit is working--a development that probably warmed Zemeckis's William Castle-loving heart--but despite having a pronounced thing about heights, I personally never felt queasy but those with vertigo-like tendencies might want to think twice about seeing it. Throughout his career, Zemeckis has pushed the boundaries of what filmmaking technology is capable of and the wire-walking sequence seen here is destined to go down as one of his best.

"The Walk" is a good film that yearns to be great but never quite manages to reach such heights until the knockout conclusion. As a human drama, it has elements that don't work, subplots that go nowhere (the romance between Petit and Annie is an especially egregious example) and a central character that frankly gets on our nerves after a while. On the other hand, it does manage to understand why a person would voluntarily put themselves in such a dangerous position (at least better than "Everest" did), it gives all the thrills and jolts that a viewer can handle during its climax and it essentially serves as an elaborate and family-friendly hymn to the power of imagination and the memory of the World Trade Center. Yes, "Man on Wire" is an essential film--one that should be required viewing for anyone watching this one--but while a lesser enterprise, "The Walk" is still exciting enough to warrant a recommendation. Oh yeah, it is suitable for kids (though the ending might be a bit tense for younger ones) but be sure to remind them to not try any of them at home.

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