Review: With "The Walk," Robert Zemeckis breathes new life into a fantastic true story
With The Walk, Robert Zemeckis has accomplished something I never necessarily thought he could: He made me cry, openly and unexpectedly, in the purest and most fulfilling way possible.
I expected he would do this story – a dramatization of Philippe Petit’s infamous high-wire walk across the twin towers of the World Trade Center, most famously portrayed in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire – justice in a number of ways; that a director as adept with special effects, humor, and a general crowd-pleasing tone could make Petit’s larger-than-life story shine on the big screen. I expected he would make me laugh at Petit’s personality and antics, that he would craft the caper side of the story with a nimble and joyous sense of fun, and most importantly, that he would realize the eponymous wire walk itself with impeccable craftsmanship and a strong sense of immersion. I expected to feel frightened by the sense of height, shocked by those little moments of danger and triumph that characterized Petit’s walk, and to be in awe, once more, of the sheer audacity and scale of what Petit accomplished.
What I did not expect was the tears. Yet when Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit finally takes that first step, placing both feet on the wire and slowly moving out across the chasm between the twin towers, I could not help myself. It was involuntary, unexpected, completely instinctual and unstoppable. I felt tears flooding from my eyes, felt my chest tighten and my breath slow, felt utterly overwhelmed not only by the beauty of the action this insane, wonderful man had taken, but by all this masterful piece of performance art represented and continues to represent. The fear, the vertigo, the weightless feeling in my stomach – I sensed all of that for a moment, before Petit took his first step, but once he did, it was washed away, replaced only with that incredible sensation of wonder and accomplishment, as it must have felt for Petit, and as it surely felt for his friends.
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Here’s the thing: Man on Wire is perhaps my favorite documentary film of all time, and surely one of my favorite movies of the 2000s to date. There are few true stories I love more than that of Philippe Petit and his mad, magnificent drive to hang his wire between the tallest towers in the world. It speaks to so much of what I find fascinating and inspiring about the human condition, to the things that produce wonder and reverie inside our hearts, and which in turn compel us to share that wonder with others. I think this is a story that shall be worth telling and re-telling for as long as mankind aspires, for anything and for everything, and Zemeckis and company would have had to work very, very hard in the wrong direction for me to come away from The Walk with anything less than a big, boisterous smile on my face.
But the tears? That’s something special, and something I could not have counted on. Zemeckis has not merely told a competent version of this tale, but brought it to life with a sense of awe and enthusiasm that breathes fresh life into the story, as though one is not merely hearing it for the first time, but experiencing it as it unfolds. It is a small but important distinction, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a crucial partner in this venture. I have already heard a fair bit of disagreement from critics and viewers as to the effectiveness of his performance, and while I don’t demand everyone love what he’s doing here, to criticize Gordon-Levitt would be to criticize Petit himself, because the actor has, simply put, nailed it. From the voice to the mannerisms to the general sense that we are watching a man who has magically stepped into our world from out of a fairy-tale, this is exactly who Petit is: A magician, a clown, a spinner of tall tales, a man so enthusiastic about the world and all its unexpected possibilities that he would, against all sound logic and reason, make it his life’s goal to hang a wire across the twin towers. You do not get to be the legendary Philippe Petit by being a subtle figure, and you do not get to embody Philippe Petit by toning things down. Gordon-Levitt has attacked this role with all the passion and excitement that the real Petit imbues into his every word, and it is, as a result, a delightful performance, one bursting at the seams with wit and humanity.
And because Zemeckis has a ready-and-willing Gordon-Levitt at his film’s center, he can design The Walk as an irrepressibly joyous storybook of sorts, a film that wears its big, ludicrous heart on its sleeves and invites us all to smile and laugh alongside it. There is nothing necessarily ‘inappropriate’ about Marsh’s Man on Wire, but I doubt it is the sort of film that would hold a child’s attention. The Walk, with Gordon-Levitt as our larger-than-life storyteller and Zemeckis weaving whimsy and excitement into every step of the tale, is a film I suspect children of all ages will love, and that makes me happy. Petit’s story is absolutely one that should be made accessible to children, not only because its message of aspiration and dreams is one young people should be taught, but because Petit’s own logic and worldview is perhaps best described as ‘childlike.’ His innocent sense of drive and determination makes intuitive logic to a child; to an adult, it reminds us of a part of ourselves that we may have long since suppressed, and which we should all yearn to unearth once more. Zemeckis’ film, with its grand, romantic gestures and expressionistic style, honors that side of Petit, and does it so completely that I cannot help but love the film.
That it does so without sacrificing detail or depth is, of course, crucial. The Walk trims some narrative corners here and there, condensing and combining in the way all historical dramatizations inevitably must, but for the most part, this is a remarkably and pleasingly accurate rendering of Petit’s story. It owes an enormous debt to Man on Wire, borrowing many of Petit’s own words and lifting the heist-movie structure that James Marsh so skillfully recognized in the material, but it never feels like a simple retread of existing material. Even when Zemeckis and company recreate a scene directly from the documentary – such as Petit and one of his accomplices hiding out for hours under a tarp, or Petit spending weeks donning different disguises to case the still-under-construction towers – it does so with such a lightness in its step, and such a commitment to realizing every visual and verbal detail, that I often found myself grinning especially broadly at those moments. The Walk is not a better film than Man on Wire, nor does it supplant the now-classic documentary; what it does, instead, is to exist in conversation with Marsh’s film, each telling the same story but with different, equally valuable perspectives. Where Man on Wire is all about reflection, about this group of conspirators looking back on the most extraordinary moment of their lives with a powerful sense of hindsight, The Walk is a more immersive, ground-level portrayal, an experiential portrait of this great human accomplishment.
And that is, ultimately, where the beauty of Zemeckis’ film lies. I love the sequence in Marsh’s film when the walk itself actually happens, love how it leaves all filmed recreations aside in favor of a few choice images and, more importantly, the overwhelmed emotional recollections of those who were involved. It is a historically great moment of documentary filmmaking. But what Zemeckis accomplishes with his recreation of the high-wire act is something else entirely, an ode to the artistic core of what it was Petit accomplished. In both the documentary and Zemeckis’ film, Petit describes his ‘coup’ as a work of art, but until seeing the walk realized this fully – on IMAX and in 3D and with all the necessary technological bells and whistles – I do not think I understood just how fully this was, indeed, art. And it isn’t the beauty of the sky at sunrise, or the splendor of the city far below, or the architectural marvel of the towers themselves, or any of those other details that Zemeckis’ special effects so incredibly breathe back into life that made Petit’s walk ‘art’: It was the simple action of doing it, of putting both feet onto that wire, suppressing all fear, and committing himself wholly to living and reveling in that moment, no matter the danger or the potential cost. It was all of those things and none of them, something Zemeckis illustrates beautifully in an expressive series of images before the walk begins, when we see inside Petit’s mind as he slowly drowns out every image but the wire itself; and when he steps onto the wire, and the world returns all around him, I could not help myself. I wept. It produced in me an emotion only the greatest of all art can.
In representing that action, The Walk is a damn impressive work of art in its own right. One could wax poetic for pages about the technical wizardry with which Zemeckis and company brought Petit’s act to life, how seamlessly and completely they resurrected a location that no longer exists. Even with an achievement as grand as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road in the conversation this year, The Walk might be an even greater feat of visual effects; there are few greater examples in recent film history that use the tools available to filmmakers today to create an emotional response within the audience.
The Walk is not a perfect film. I’m not a huge fan of the title – Man on Wire was already taken, of course, but wouldn’t ‘The Coup’ have been an even more fittingly playful name? – and I’m not sure how I feel about just how much Zemeckis softened the ending. One of the most compelling parts of Marsh’s documentary is the way it explores how Petit essentially abandoned his friends and accomplices after he got off the wire, how each of them was so irrevocably changed by the experience that they could not stay in one another’s orbit. It would be a difficult idea to convey in a dramatization without making Petit come across as a monster – which, as his friends make clear, he was not – but I think Zemeckis probably swung too far in the other direction, honing in on a theme of friendship and camaraderie after the climax that is, in all ways, false. Given the lengths the film goes to in its second act to paint Petit as obsessed and self-absorbed, the resolution of his story does not just feel a tad out of place with history, but with the substance of the film itself.
But then again, I love the actual note Zemeckis closes on – a silent acknowledgement of September 11th, and an ode to how Petit’s walk made the spirit of the towers eternal – and on the whole, I found the experience so overwhelming that I cannot help but be over the moon for it. Time will tell if The Walk is a truly great film, but at the moment, it is a movie I love deeply, as much as anything I have seen all year, and I hope it is seen by people far and wide, of all ages and backgrounds. Few theatrical experiences this year have proved or will prove more rewarding than this.
(Note: While I would recommend seeing The Walk on the biggest and brightest screen possible, and even in 3D if one is not averse to it, I would not necessarily recommend seeing it on IMAX, where it is currently playing in exclusive limited release. IMAX 3D is wonky on the best of days, with flimsy, awkward glasses that are too small for the screen and especially limiting to those who already wear glasses, and a lot of The Walk wound up looking blurry to me as a result. The screen is so big, and the glasses so imperfect, that light refracts of itself in all sorts of weird, distracting patterns, and while I loved the film enough to ignore it, this was hardly the optimal way to view what is a very impressive visual achievement. The film opens in wide release next week, on October 9th, and I would recommend waiting to see it then, in a setting that won’t compromise the image this drastically.)