On August 7, 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this film) hung a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center with help from a cadre of accomplices. He then proceeded to walk the wire with only the clothes on his back and a balancing beam between him and oblivion; no safety harnesses here. He walked the distance eight times, performing for forty-five minutes. The enterprise was illegally done, of course, so Petit and some of his co-conspirators were arrested directly upon completion of what he called “the artistic crime of the century”. His sentence: to perform a wire walk in Central Park. You can’t make this stuff up. But if you’re ambitious visual stylist Robert Zemeckis, you can put the audience up on that wire with the power of 3D filmmaking.
More than any film I’ve seen in 2015, The Walk almost demands that you experience it in the theater; but more than that, in 3D; but more than that, in IMAX 3D. The 3D here is integral to the immersion of the film, and when Petit gets on the wire, director Zemeckis (always noted for his trademark of dynamic and ambitious camerawork) has a field day using 3D for extraordinary depth perception and sweeping visuals.
Now, I myself am acrophobic, and spent the majority of the film in anxious anticipation of the climax. Would I be able to handle it? Would I have to look away? Petit’s character expresses similar trepidations throughout: “My head is full of doubts. And when it’s time to step on the wire, I don’t know if I’ll be able to take my first step.” But as Petit steps on the wire, he describes letting go of his anxiety, and strangely enough, my experience mirrored his. Even as someone who shakes at the knees at the prospect of great heights, I was fine throughout the climax, free to appreciate the money shots of the film.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has always been an extraordinary physical actor, whether he’s coping with a rotating set to shoot the famous hallway fight for Inception, burning rubber on the streets for the bicycle chases of Premium Rush, or receiving coaching from Petit himself for the wire act of The Walk. But also in the dramatic aspect of the performance, Gordon-Levitt convinces, rising above the tricky French accent that could have sunk the performance. Now, Petit’s character is a bit of an asshole, there’s no denying; he hates compromise and sometimes plays the hard taskmaster to his friends in service of his own artistic ambition. But that’s part of the deal; only someone with that type of obsessive drive could have performed the walk.
The supporting cast, particularly his gang of aiding and abetting friends, are a fun group that help in giving the film its character. This is especially true in the second act, which depicts the weeks of planning for working out the practicalities of infiltrating the towers and rigging the wire. The heist element that kicks in there gives The Walk very welcome momentum and excitement, after a first act that, while solid, is very much in the standard biopic mould (although I’d be remiss not to mention the memorable setpiece wherein Petit does a dry run for a high-elevation wire walk on an iconic Parisian structure).
The production and costume design do a great job transporting us to the 1970s, while Alan Silvestri’s minimalist score underscores the ambition and accomplishment of the walk beautifully. If there is a (relatively) weak link in the chain, it’s Zemeckis’ and co-writer Christopher Browne’s screenplay, which hits favorite beats very transparently throughout (we know it’s your ever-lovin’ “dream”). There’s also an explicit narrative framing device that breaks the fourth wall, which I’m fine with, but may take some out of the experience.
But the standout element of the screenplay is the fairly understated sentimentality surrounding the twin towers; what they meant to New Yorkers as they were being built, what they came to mean after Petit’s walk. The thread culminates in a great bittersweet ending, and leaves a lasting impression.
So The Walk is an extraordinary visual experience, legitimately supported by 3D, best seen on an IMAX 3D screen. The cast is fun together (including Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibomy and the rest), the well-edited heist section makes for light-hearted tension, and Gordon-Levitt continues to prove his leading screen talent. Robert Zemeckis’ filmmaking ambition pays off here, in depicting another instance of ambition paying off on the biggest New York City stage of all. 8/10.