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The Walk

NYFF 2015 Review

Sony Pictures; 123 minutes

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Written by on September 27, 2015 

The knowledge that Philippe Petit survived his 1,350-foot-high, 45-minute-long, eight-interval walk across the twin towers of New York’s in-construction World Trade Center on August 7, 1974 is hardly an issue for The Walk, a film so admiring of and respectful to its subject that no option but success ever seems possible. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Petit is the first thing to follow a borderline anachronistic TriStar logo — a rare ‘90s throwback that ultimately feels fitting, given the relaxed-yet-methodical approach from Robert Zemeckis, bucking current studio filmmaking trends — and the way his grin, perhaps just a bit shit-eating, fills the IMAX screen couldn’t more loudly tell us that we’re under his spell. (Nor could his French accent — which sounds not unlike this writer’s brother after he’s had a few drinks and someone mentions the great European nation — more loudly telegraph that this is also an actor’s interpretation.) A showman is always a storyteller, and striking the (ahem) balance between showing and telling will make way for some of this picture’s greatest strengths and central weaknesses.


But The Walk is mostly defined by those strengths, and the ones most clearly forming its outline — from being situated in the middle of his crazy ambition to watching every dastardly, heist-like preparation to experiencing the advertised-to-death climactic stunt — are often spectacular. Zemeckis has a fine sense of how to use his camera, be it framing conversations with a particular shape or allowing shots and the actions within them to play out over an extended period (even as little unusual takes place), has often been overshadowed by the claim that he’s an effects man first, storyteller second. Here’s a refutation. While there are plenty of post-production elements in play before we get to the high-wire walk — and more than a few of them, including wide-shot recreations of New York City, sadly appear unfinished, or at least unrealized — this is a visual showcase in the (to use a loaded term) classicist sense. What pleasure there is to be found when he and DP Dariusz Wolski expertly block an otherwise ordinary trip to a dentist’s office (the film’s instigating event, one of course led up to with a CG-heavy bit of physical comedy) or employ subtle match cuts and in-sequence dissolves (e.g. a years-spanning montage showing bits of rope disappear as Petit develops as a wire-walker) to put us in Petit’s rat-a-tat-tat point of view; what joy is wrung from the material when one shot advances from and leads into its immediate counterpart as neatly as the pieces of his stunt fall into place.

Zemeckis’ co-writing of said material (handled with Christopher Browne), and the symbiosis between it and his visual realization would suggest — but only suggest; I don’t want to play too deep a guessing game — a personal understanding of Petit. It’s not just that the development process is expressly from his perspective — Gordon-Levitt is in almost every scene, and the very rare instance of others appearing without him is, for being during the secluded high-wire act, more about community, specifically his effect on them — but that the extensive build-up is a projection of what he sees, a projection that is itself realized by a master stylist and his assembled team. (Wire-like lines suddenly appearing across photos that no one has marked and personal projections of his demise are placed in the same shot as Petit stressing over the project.) These are not indulgences. These are not silly side tracks. This is not a director attempting to bring life to simple material. He is the story, the story is a conduit for effects, and effects are The Walk‘s way of circling back to him.


How Gordon-Levitt lives up to the material is a bit more suspect. Whereas the knowledge of Petit’s survival will color — and I think enliven, given the extent to which it lets us focus on smaller details — The Walk from stem to stern, the idea that this is a performance never dissipates. That particular relationship with real-life material is more of a liability than a strength. For every physical trait that is nailed — slinking his feet across the wire first comes to mind, though I’m no less taken with the general animated quality of his swinging arms and raising eyebrows — the accent, or at least the constant impression of someone working their way through an accent, hampers credibility.

Two things, a separate success and a separate hindrance, highlight the problem. First is the outstanding supporting cast, most especially James Badge Dale as an always-smarter-than-he-looks New Yorker who joins Petit out of some respect for audacity. (His performance isn’t much less physical than Gordon-Levitt’s. Look at the way he smiles when closing the gate of an elevator that he doesn’t operate; look at the way camaraderie with his fellow team members and his satisfaction in one-upping the system combine in no more than the efficient use of his hands.) And then there are some particularly clunky bits of dialogue that attempt to sell the majesty of it all — “I gather the courage to whisper so the demons won’t hear me” doesn’t sound much better in a faux Parisian lilt — or Gordon-Levitt’s voiceover more or less telling us what we’re seeing. The showman’s a storyteller, yes, but he doesn’t need to talk so often — not when a visual storyteller this gifted is at the helm and has already proven themselves capable of jolting the material time and again. Perspective is important, sure, but in-the-moment impressions, of which this film has plenty, easily trounce the distance of reflections.


It’s to this end that The Walk works best as a fusion of visual deftness and respect for physical exertion. This characteristic is obvious enough in how Zemeckis and Browne stress the great work that went into simply getting everything in place, much of which the former seems to have enjoyed bringing it out in three dimensions. (A tool that’s mostly unnecessary outside the climactic sequence, however nicely depth is manipulated therein.) The montage-heavy, one-thing-after-the-next rhythm of the build-up, so typical of a heist picture — not so much of the if, but of the how — pays off in the actual walk, a sequence that changes pace for being composed and edited in more or less real time. Everything that has transpired on a narrative, character, and emotional level is focalized in steps, facial expressions, and a series of cuts between Petit, his compatriots on either tower, and the crowd below. As they vocalize the awe that Petit must internalize and finally experience (in the case of his teammates, understand) the wonder that he’s felt since first seeing an illustration of the World Trade Center, The Walk expands before our eyes: what was first a film about fulfilling passion is now a film focused on transmitting it.

With the knowledge of his survival completely fulfilled, and with the singular experience now a matter for the history books — as well as criminal records, humorously acknowledged as sillier than any lunacy Petit might otherwise be accused of — Zemeckis and Browne quickly, tacitly shift collective focus to the cloud that hangs over the buildings themselves. If it’s to be expected, it’s also telegraphed with an uncommon intelligence for how we graft our own histories onto a certain location. Whether The Walk invites us to retain that history or instead suggests that a structure as large as the Twin Towers belongs to no one, and can never really become any sort of synecdochal stand-in — stand-ins are something this process-oriented picture rejects; there is no whole without pieces, even if the whole is also the briefest of many steps — hums in the brain immediately after the fact. Me? I don’t really have an answer. I just know that I found Zemeckis and Petit’s processes as moving as they are thrilling.

The Walk opened the 53rd New York Film Festival and will arrive in IMAX theaters on Wednesday, September 30, then expand wide on Friday, October 9.


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