The Walk is a viseral visual experience. The tension director Robert Zemeckis creates is greater than the tension on the high wire on which the main character walks.
The deficiency in the story lies in the characters.
The Walk is the true story about Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who in 1974 attempted to illegally do a hire wire act between the Twin Towers. We follow Philippe as he develops this mad dream with the help of his long suffering girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). As the story unfolds, he enlists the help of other accomplices like Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) and his mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). This plan not only requires a great deal of planning but since it is also illegal there is a strong element of danger. That is why the film feels very much like an Ocean's 11 style heist movie. The planning, the organizing, and the setbacks are fascinating. And danger lies at every turn of "the coup" (as Philippe calls it) failing. And the danger only becomes greater as Philippe gets closer and closer to his dream of walking on the high wire.
Like his other films like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, Zemeckis is able to capture the style and feeling of the way the world used to be. The vibe of the film feels very authentic to the sensibilites of 1970's New York.
I understand exactly why Zemeckis chose this project. The visual challenge is stunning. In IMAX 3D, the director utilizes the medium to its maximum effect. The use of visual depth is not simply used as a cool effect. It is essential to understanding the danger involved in this mad plan. I found myself stomping my feet on the ground in terror as they reach "the coup" (this is not a spoiler since this is seen in the trailer). Even before this, Zemeckis creates a sense of height unlike anything I have seen. In one scene, 2 characters must hide on a steel beam dangling over an enormous precipice. I could feel my insides churning as I found myself placed in the character's perspective. As someone terrified of heights, the movie filled me with wonderfully cathartic terror.
But there are few things that keep this movie from being great and it has to do with the story.
The main problem (and this is also the problem I had with the documentary on which this film is based: Man on Wire) is that Philippe is ultimately egotistical and selfish. He talks incessantly about his dream and what he is willing to do to achieve it, even risk his life. He talks often about doing something amazing and beautiful for the world. And to his credit, Zemeckis gives this idea its best emotional punch. But there is always something that rings hollow about it. Rather than coming off like an artist who is trying to bring the light a higher beauty to the world, Philippe comes off like a modern attention whore, willing to risk fame at any personal cost. The script addresses this arrogance by explaining the confidence a wire-worker needs, but it does not do enough to make up for this shallowness. As a Catholic, we know we are called to glorify God, not to aggrandize the self for personal glory.
The second is Gordon-Levitt's performance. I love Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as an actor and think he is one of the most talented performers around. His physical performance is outstanding. I completely bought his skill as a wire-worker. The problem is his accent. It was so completely distracting throughout the entire film. Rather than accepting him as a Frenchman, I could not help feel like he was channelling Pepe Le Pew. It does not help that the script does not have enough confidence in its audience and so employs a constant and unnecessary narration by Gordon-Leavitt and his accent.
The move does end with a wonderfully heartfelt feeling. The big elephant in the room throughout the film is that the Twin Towers at heart of Philippe's dream are no longer there. I kept waiting for some foreshadowing or some nod to 9/11. What Zemeckis does instead is so wonderfully simple and subtle that it touched my heart in a way I was not expecting. I only wish he was able to employ that same sentimentality to the rest of the movie.
The Walk is a visual, visceral feast for the eyes.
It is a movie with a lot of height, but in the end very little depth.
4 our of 5 stars.