The Walk

See it in IMAX: The Walk's nerve-wracking wire-walking scenes overcome storytelling flaws

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The Walk

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Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Samuel, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Sergio Di Zio, Jason Blicker, Nathaly Thibault, Melantha Blackthorne, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Larry Day, Jason Deline. Written by Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne.

Here’s all you need to know about The Walk: the final half-hour is a complete knockout, and just about makes up for all the storytelling faults in the rest of film. The Walk will not go down as a classic, but the final act is as intense and nerve-wracking as it gets – especially when seen in IMAX and 3D.

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In 1974, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit pulled off the almost unimaginable feat of stringing a steel cable between the two World Trade Center buildings and walking across it without a safety harness or a net. 

To do so, he and a team of accomplices, after years of planning, illegally entered the rooftop of each building before construction on the towers was finished. To erect the cable, they shot an arrow attached to fishing line between the buildings and then dragged a series of ropes across, working their way up to the wire.

This story has been told before, in detailed and riveting fashion, in the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire (a much better title than The Walk, by the way) from director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything).

But there’s one thing that documentary couldn’t do: for all the care and attention and real-life interviews with Petit, his accomplices, and others, there’s precious little footage of the actual performance. The only photographic evidence of the walk is a series of still photographs shot from the rooftops and some far-distant footage shot from the street and a helicopter above.

That’s where The Walk comes in, and that’s where it delivers. In spades. The final third of the film is spent almost entirely atop the South Tower of the World Trade Center, as Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) embarks on his walk between the towers, which isn’t just a one-way deal; he makes a total of six passes between the towers while police on either side try to get him to come back and astonished passersby watch from the ground.

And it’s exhilarating stuff. After Gordon-Levitt’s Petit takes that first step onto the steel wire, everything that the film has been building up to immediately pays off as the narrative precariously balances up there on the wire alongside the protagonist. You’re right up there with Petit during these moments, for better and worse.

The climactic scenes in the walk are so effective, in fact, that reports have even surfaced of some viewers becoming physically ill. We’ve heard these kinds of stories before, but if you have any kind of fear of heights, The Walk is likely to get to you more than any other movie. 

The scenes are effective not just because the narrative of the film has been building towards them, but because of how director Robert Zemeckis has composed and shot the sequences. The camera so carefully follows Petit’s every movement that suspense is induced with every step, with the ground is so frighteningly far away.

And it’s better in 3D, which helps hide the CGI – mostly green screen work – used in creating the illusion. In three dimensions, the blurred backgrounds and dim projection – usually a big negative – actually contribute to the disorienting feeling of walking the wire. In crisp 2D, the digital fakery is much more apparent.

So The Walk’s climax is thrilling stuff. Why isn’t the film better overall?

Most of it is fine, taking us from Petit’s childhood to his early performances on the streets of Paris, his romance with girlfriend Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) – which is hamstrung by staying faithful to the real-life events – and his early days of wire-walking training under the tutelage of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley).

(Papa Rudy, by the way, was a Czechoslovak performer who toured Europe with his family and troupe The White Devils – read more about him here.) 

It’s a familiar narrative, burdened by Gordon-Levitt’s oh-ho-ho impossibly thick French accent and its constant presence throughout the film via voiceover narration, which merely describes the events on the screen rather than adding anything to them.

The Walk gets better as Petit turns his sights to the logistical planning of the WTC walk; it becomes something of a heist movie when he recruits accomplices (played by James Badge Dale, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, and others) and makes the final preparations in New York City.

And then the climax pays off as well as it could have. But the film’s final shot, while brief, is unforgivable: after an entire movie where the World Trade Center buildings are so present that they become characters in and of themselves, the closing narration specifically invokes 9/11 while nostalgically lingering on that familiar skyline. Come on, guys.

The Walk is decent enough, and worth it all for those terrifying climactic moments. But if you’ve seen Man on Wire, you’ve seen this story told without the Hollywood theatrics, and the real-deal Petit makes for a far better narrator than Gordon-Levitt’s Inspector Clouseau imitation.

Note: some scenes are in French, subtitled only in Czech on Prague screens. 

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