Friday, October 9, 2015

A Reel Review: THE WALK

In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit accomplished an astonishing feat; he and his friends, never meaning any harm, covertly and expertly strung a high-wire between the World Trade Center Towers, on which Philippe performed a breathtaking high-wire act complete with one-legged salutes and laying on his back. The often-forgotten story has been the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, but never brought to life in a feature film. Enter Robert Zemeckis and THE WALK.

Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a French high-wire artist, conspires to perform a high-wire act over the World Trade Center Towers with the help of his mentor (Ben Kingsley), girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon), and a rag-tag group of friends assembled from France and New York City (played by James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, and Clement Sibony).

Every man’s journey has thousands of steps, and the journey to Philippe’s walk is worth every one of them. The early goings of THE WALK are a slow stroll, as it goes through the (ahem) steps of Philippe’s early life and eventual inspiration to perform over the towers. The first act of THE WALK is a bit of a slog, as the steps are very familiar and somewhat perfunctory as Philippe discovers his talent, has ups and downs, and eventually finds his calling by way of what could be considered divine intervention and help from his father-figure and friends. For the most part it works because director Robert Zemeckis injects a lot of charm and heart into the story, and from the early goings it is clear that bigger things are on the way.

Once the story shifts to America and Philippe and his assembled band of yahoos start to put together their plan, the film somewhat transforms into a caper-flick. The planning, spying, and eventual execution of the master-plan in secret is very reminiscent of an old fashioned MISSION IMPOSSIBLE storyline, and it is a lot of fun to take in. As good as that is, it is nothing compared to the huge payoff in the walk on the wire a quarter-mile above the ground. The effects work is absolutely dizzying, and for those afraid of heights…stomach-turning and chilling. Zemeckis gets full use out of the 3D; never before has such towering heights seem so real or so scary…but yet still beautiful. Zemeckis composes an elegant sequence (nearly 30 minutes) of the high-wire climactic performance; it is heart-warming and awesome enough to induce tears. In a film which is so heavy on visual effects, the exhilaration is overwhelming.

New York of the 1970’s looks better than it probably did in 1970. The feelings of style and free-thinking are on full display, making for a very fun experience. The Twin Towers are recreated beautifully with all of their elegance and intimidating demeanor on full display. To be sure, THE WALK is a proper tribute to the Towers just as much as it is to Philippe.  

Philippe is brought to life beautifully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Although his French accent seems a little heavy-handed and forced, he executes a great character which is a true inspiration to take in. French actress Charlotte Le Bon lights up the screen, and Ben Kingsley kind-of hams it up as Philippe’s cranky mentor. The rest of the cast is performed well.

By the movie’s emotional end (and what an end), it certainly feels like a spectacle has been seen, but also a very human story about art and the lengths artists will go through to achieve it. There is magic in their work, and there is magic in THE WALK, as Zemeckis has created a film which feels like a fable; the type of yarn that would be spun around a campfire or at a toddler’s bedside. The film does have a touch of melancholy around it, but it is a sweet one…and perhaps strong enough to leave a final wonderful memory of what once was.


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