***1/2 (out of 5)
September 30, 2015
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as PHILIPPE PETIT
Ben Kingsley as PAPA RUDY
Charlotte Le Bon as ANNIE ALLIX
James Badge Dale as J.P.
Ben Schwartz as ALBERT
Steve Valentine as BARRY GREENHOUSE
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
I have always had inconsistent opinions of Robert Zemeckis’s directorial resume. Some of his earlier films – like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” the “Back to the Future” movies and “Forrest Gump” – are really quite good. However, in recent years (and by “recent,” I mean “the last 15 or 20”), his filmmaking prowess has been hampered by the very thing that made his earlier work so fascinating: special effects.
Otherwise creative and interesting films like “What Lies Beneath” and some of his motion capture movies have been so concerned with tricking the eye that they drew from the story and characters. It was no surprise that he spent more than a decade of his career making only motion capture movies: “The Polar Express” in 2004, “Beowulf” in 2007 and “A Christmas Carol” in 2009 between “Cast Away” in 2000 and “Flight” in 2012.
I loathed “Flight,” but at least it was nice to see Zemeckis return to a more traditional film (this being a character study with limited visual effects), which we really haven’t seen since “Romancing the Stone” back in 2004. Now, he continues exploring characters again, but has jumped back into the visual effects pool with “The Walk.”
Based on the real-life events of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the film tells the story of his dream to string a high-wire between the World Trade Center twin towers and walk across it. The movie begins with Petit’s life in France, where trained as a street performer and met his girlfriend, eventually hatching his plan to attempt this grand feat in New York.
If you’ve seen the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” you’re familiar with the story. Or perhaps you were around in 1974 when Petit made his legendary walk. However, the drama of the story (which was also the compelling part of “Man on Wire”) isn’t whether Petit survives but how he manages to pull the whole thing off.
The first half of the film is charming enough, once you get past Gordon-Levitt’s embarrassingly bad French accent. Even though I remember watching “Man on Wire” several years ago, the whimsical, hyper-real nature of idealized Paris in the 1970s was pretty neat to watch. The real saving grace in the beginning isn’t Gordon-Levitt as the lead but rather the supporting cast of characters, which includes the adorable Charlotte Le Bon as Petit’s girlfriend and Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor.
Things pick up quite a bit when Petit finally hatches his plan. We see how he brings everything together, enlisting the help of various others in France. This is where it turns into a lighter version of “Oceans Eleven,” and it really takes off when the gang makes their way to New York.
Even if you know the backstory, it’s pretty neat to see things unfold and realize how impossible this would be in today’s world (or at least you’d hope so considering how easily the team gained access to sensitive areas). Still, the punchy, nostalgic look at New York City in the 70s wasn’t what sold me on this movie.
What raises this movie far above a humdrum biopic is the depiction of Petit’s walk between the towers. It is rare that I see a movie that should be experienced in 3D on the biggest screen possible. That happens maybe once or twice a year, and the only other film I can think of this year that calls for that is “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Zemeckis’s technocrat skills come in very handy as he digitally puts Gordon-Levitt on a high wire between these two NYC landmarks. Personally, I experience just enough vertigo to make heights of this kind thrilling. I’ve been on any roller coaster that would let me ride it, and I’ve dangled from the top of the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas. Even with my butt planted firmly in my seat, watching this unfold in IMAX 3D was breathtaking. All the dizzying effects were felt… sweaty palms, butterflies in my stomach, tingling on the backs of my thighs.
Regardless of the somewhat mundane beginning of the film and in spite of Gordon-Levitt’s pretty terrible performance, the last thirty minutes of “The Walk” are what makes it worth the price of admission.