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No matter the opinion of any Robert Zemeckis film, there is typically something special in every film he makes. The visionary director has made a career out of redefining the way see often see the typical world, dazzling us with spectacular cinematic moments we long remember and cherish, even if those films as a whole don’t succeed. Think about the DeLorean time machine racing toward the camera in Back to the Future (1985), and a floating feather in Forrest Gump (1994) and a near drowning Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath (2000) and that astonishing view from atop the island in Cast Away (2000). That last one especially might feel familiar in comparing it with his latest film, The Walk, a dramatization of the true-life exploits of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s actual walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. This comes only seven years after the award winning documentary Man on Wire about the same event, which is a better film and experience.
In The Walk, Zemeckis never truly goes for realism, keeping the story as a kind of playful storybook fantasy, which makes sense as the entire tale really feels like something made up for children. It’s probably a wise choice to give that angle but it also is a bit distracting, especially in the early scenes when we start with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty with the Twin Towers looming behind. It’s an odd moment because the CGI is just good enough to be believable yet bad enough to have you guessing otherwise. Of course it’s just a plot device to introduce the outlandish character and serves as the nest for his narration, one of the more disappointing aspects of the movie. It’s meant to be charming and ingratiating, but instead it’s off-putting and a bit immodest. From the very start, the cockiness left me at a distance.
We travel to Paris and learn about the artist’s beginnings as a street performer, refining his skills as a juggler and wire-walker. He has no friends, and spends most of his time with a short length of rope he images spanning various high locations throughout the city. One day, at a dentist’s offie, he spies an article about the new trade towers being built in New York City and is immediately struck by a passion. He draws a line from one tower to the other and claims this action seals his fate, a hopelessly needless sentiment and a frustrating example of how the movie steadfastly refuses to let the audience enter this world, pushed outside of it constantly by his ceaseless verbal description of what we can clearly see.
Things look up a bit when he meets the beautiful and charismatic Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who is a street musician that forms a mutual attraction with Philippe. The two meet cute with a petty squabble that leads to romance, though the problem for her is of course, Petit’s only real passion is wire walking. There are other characters on the periphery as well, including Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a famous wire walker and circus performer who comes and goes with blinks of the eye but impresses as he does.
But it’s about the walk. That’s why we’re here. Petit spend almost the entirety of the story up on a wire, including an illegal attempt across Notre Dame Cathedral, which encourages him and convinces him he’s ready for New York. And wasting no time, at the thirty minute mark, Philippe is standing at the base of the towers looking up. From there on, it’s a just a matter of how to get to the top and suspend his line. He faces all sorts of obstacles and setbacks, including almost dropping his gear, losing his costume and a visit from a mysterious stranger while standing on top of the tower, but at last gets the wire across and begins his now infamous walk.
The walk itself is one of Zemeckis‘ greatest achievements, a visual masterpiece that is powerfully compelling and even a bit terrifying, but breathtaking nonetheless. It is purposefully dreamlike and yet very real. There is a nobility to the moment, made so clear by the fate of the towers. It’s a gripping, emotional moment for anyone who has affection for these once majestic landmarks. And it is utterly ruined by Petit’s incessant, non-stop commentary on the process, explaining in entirely unnecessary terms what we can so wonderfully see on the actor’s face and the view beneath his feet. It’s a frustrating moment in a film that feels distant and quite ironically, given the sheer breadth of dialogue Philippe provides, leaves the man almost a total blank. Recommend only for the last act and the truly stunning walk.