In “The Walk,” Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Gallic Guy Cannot Ruin the Majesty of Zemeckis’ 3D High-Wire Thrills

Walk

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

Have you seen James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire (2008)? It tells the story of famed French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who, in August 1974, hung – somehow – a solid wire between the (at that time) almost-completed World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan and then, for almost 45 minutes, performed the impossibly dangerous feat of walking back and forth along its length. That film was a marvel of cinematic portraiture and historical journalism, giving us the incredible details of the caper-like plotting that allowed Petit and his cohorts to pull off their coup, and allowing us great insight into the mind of the man who would risk his life for such a stunt. What that film couldn’t do was recreate the thrill of the actual walk along the tightrope, though I hardly noticed the lack, so caught up was I in the intrigue.

And now along comes Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureForrest GumpContactCastawayFlight) – entertainer and technological pioneer – with his own dramatized telling of the same story. Zemeckis is not always the subtlest of filmmakers – his beats are often heavy – but he believes in cinematic spectacle, and this new film delivers the goods … on that end. Filmed in IMAX and 3D (at the screening I attended, it was just in 3D, with no IMAX), the movie is a testament to the power of the moving-image medium to transport us to great heights of narrative grandeur. In this case, those heights are, in fact, literal.

Where the film (mostly) fails is in its initial one-hour set up of the actual climb. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Premium Rush) plays Petit, and when we first meet him, he is standing on a platform at the top of the Statue of Liberty, looking over the Hudson River at the Twin Towers. It is from this vantage point that Petit narrates the film with French-accented expositional commentary to tell us, time and again, what we are already seeing on screen. As you can no doubt tell, I find this device irritating, as I do Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Gallic Guy. The secondary characters (including Charlotte Le Bon, of The Hundred-Foot Journey, and Ben Kingsley, of well, everything) – so richly drawn in Marsh’s documentary – are there (barely) to support Zemeckis’ vision of the mercurial artist at work. Although, even then, we hardly get to know the man, Petit, himself. Fortunately, Gordon-Levitt is a charismatic enough performer that he can hold your attention, accent and all, with nary a screenplay to back him up.

Despite these problems, what happens once we arrive in New York for the main event makes up for (almost) all of these defects. Not only does Petit soar over the cityscape; so, too, does the film. I have not heretofore suffered from excessive vertigo, yet I was on the edge of my seat for much of the second hour, sometimes scarcely able to look at the screen. What Zemeckis, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus) and the visual effects team have accomplished is simply a wonder. Without a single gunshot or violent act, the filmmakers have created one of the most visceral cinematic experiences of the year. I can only imagine what the movie feels like in IMAX, but I don’t know if I could survived that additional level of filmic envelopment. So I recommend it, but with the caveat that it is not for the vertiginous and/or faint of heart, or for those who cannot forgive its weaker first half.

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