A film review by Craig J. Koban October 16, 2015

RANK: 16


2015, PG, 123 mins.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit  /  Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy  /  Charlotte Le Bon as Annie Allix  /  Ben Schwartz as Albert  /  Steve Valentine as Barry Greenhouse  /  Mark Camacho as Guy Tozolli

Directed by Robert Zemeckis  /  Screenplay by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, based on the book "To Reach the Clouds" by Philippe Petit


Robert Zemeckis’ THE WALK is an absolute masterful triumph of visual effects and production design and probably represents the finest usage of 3D technology since AVATAR.  

The director is no stranger to making films that have pushed the envelope of what is possible to conjure up on screen, but nothing on his past superlative resume can compare to the miraculous technical feat he has achieved in the final 20-30 minutes of THE WALK, which features the stunning recreation of the seemingly improbably, but absolutely true highwire walk by French performer Philippe Petit at, yes, the World Trade Center buildings in August of 1974.  Zemeckis has conjured up innumerable riveting sequences in past films that meticulously married live action footage and cutting edge effects, but what he has achieved in THE WALK might be his greatest feat of awe-inspiring make-believe. 

Of course, Petit’s story has been chronicled before in the brilliant Oscar winning 2008 documentary MAN ON WIRE, but no actual archival video footage exists of his Herculean feat.  Zemeckis, always an enthusiastic cinematic ringmaster aiming to please, has gone to painstaking levels to place audience members front and center with Petit on that 450 pound, 26 foot long cable straddled between the two towers nearly 1400 feet above the ground.  Whereas the documentary rightfully got into the psychological headspaces of Petit and company in terms of probing what he and his co-conspirators went through while planning and implementing their unauthorized stunt, THE WALK is more about giving audience members a thoroughly transfixing sensation of what it was actually like to be Petit during his remarkable feat.  Zemeckis’s film certainly relays the mental and physical challenges that Petit went though 41 years ago, but at its core THE WALK is about delivering an awe inspiringly immersive spectacle. 



Zemeckis has found a solid actor in Joseph Gordon-Levitt to portray Petit, and even when his ultra-thick French accent is initially distracting, the performer brings such an innate and boundless eagerness and fierce determination to the role that you quickly forget any vocal imperfections in his performance.  When we are introduced to Petit he is a struggling street performer in Paris that’s desperate to make a name for himself.  When he meets a traveling circus wirewalker in Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) he grows increasingly fascinated and obsessed with the whole art of Rudy’s trade.  After training with Rudy and developing confidence and skill on the wire, Petit has an epiphany when he sees an article about the then under construction WTC in New York…while in a dentist’s office.  He draws a crude line in pencil between the rooftops of the two buildings…and realizes what his next magnum wirewalk opus will be.  As he declares in the film’s voiceover narration track, “And with that pencil stroke, my fate was sealed” 

The second act of THE WALK segues into pure heist film mode as Petit begins to gather together forces from France and America to work with him to infiltrate the WTC buildings (no easy feat), two of the more important ones being a South Tower businessman (Steve Valentine) and the other an electronics salesman (James Badge Dale) that provides some vital aid in assisting Petit with smuggling in the necessary gear all the way up to the roof on the tower itself.  His other team members include his Parisian lover Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and fellow cohorts Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy) and Albert (Ben Schwartz) and the film has ample fun – in an almost OCEAN’S 11 kind of manner – of tracking all of the careful planning that Petit’s entourage went through to get past the buildings’ construction staff and security to hatch his daredevil plot.  

Of course, the real fun begins when Petit successfully and securely gets his metal wire (a tremendous physical undertaking in its own right that the film justly emphasizes) fastened between the two towers and begins his walk.  It all culminates in a bravura and breathtaking finale that’s positively one of the most majestic and remarkably realized simulations of a real event in a film ever conceived.  On a subconscious level, I knew while watching this sequence that it was, for lack of a better word, fake.  The WTC buildings no longer exist, leaving the necessity of using visual effects to rebuild them from the ground up a foregone conclusion.  Yet, Zemeckis’ and his crack team of VFX artisans have conjured up some of the most photorealistic CGI put forth on screen that – somehow and someway – manages to make you feel every footstep that Petit makes on his audacious journey.  The subtle ambient sound effects – the rustling of the wind, the slow creak of the wire itself, and even Petit’s controlled breathing - works wonders as well to help sell the veracity of the sequence.  Zemeckis knows how valuable camera placement is as well, thoughtfully mixing in elegant and swooping camera pans that give an immediate sense of vertical spatial geography with intense close-ups of Petit’s face that showcases the unspeakable levels of internalized concentration that he must have had to muster up.  The actual walk in THE WALK is one of the great sequences of the movies. 

This is also one of the highly rare films that understands the strengths of utilizing 3D to practically enhance sequences.  If anything, the multi-dimensional sensation that the film conjures up does an even finer job of establishing the visual particulars of Petit’s walk.  There have been reports of viewers watching the film (especially during its IMAX presentation) that have developed vertigo sensations so forceful that sickness resulted.  That’s an astonishing testament to the utter verisimilitude that Zemeckis has achieved here with engineering and crafting Petit’s walk out of mostly thin air.  Also, the manner that Gordon-Levitt so thoroughly immerses himself in Petit’s shoes in the film also does a thanklessly good job of selling the credibility of this scene.  The actor exudes both a carefree and easygoing charisma throughout the film while simultaneously encompassing the man as one of arrogant optimism in the righteousness of his caper (everyone around him, at one point or another, believed his plan to be suicidal).  Gordon-Levitt trained with the real Petit in the art wirewalking for the role…and its shows in the final product.  You simply believe that the actor is 110 stories up making the impossible...possible.  

Not all of THE WALK works as well as its bravura final scene.  The film is essentially narrated by Petit himself, with Gordon-Levitt frequently breaking the fourth wall – while standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty – at times to seemingly explain everything to the audience.  There’s something to be said that the inherent theatrically of approach here matches the flamboyance of its main character, but THE WALK commits a movie sin in explaining what the film’s about instead of just simply showing us what the film is about.  More often than not, Petit’s voice becomes an obtrusive distraction, often commenting on and methodically pointing out the obvious emotional spectrum that he was going through while hatching his master plan.  Then there’s the notion that none of the other supporting characters in THE WALK are really all that interesting to begin with when compared directly to Petit.  They are not so much fleshed out as developed personas as much as they are plot devices to help conveniently propel the story. 

Nevertheless, THE WALK is a bold and miraculous achievement in movie wizardry and one that so fully and successfully produces 3D digital wonders that reaffirms to viewers that some of the most powerful films are ones that pack the most visceral punch.  It’s not a film to be passively watched, but actively experienced.  Sadly, THE WALK was a box office bomb this past weekend, and the thought of moviegoers skipping a screening of it in a cinema to perhaps view it later via their smart phones or tablets is altogether depressing.  Zemeckis’ film belongs on a short list of ones that dutifully reminds us of the inherent power of seeing and experiencing movies on as big of a silver screen canvas as possible.  

Not many films literally need to be seen to be believed…but this is one of them.


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