Last week to wrap up my review for Ridley Scott’s exceptional “The Martian,” I wrote: “This is top-quality cinema and should be a ‘must see’ for anyone who believes that there is still room for growth in big budget filmmaking.”
“The Walk” is further proof there are still movies that exist to be seen in a theater—movies that take maximum benefit of a massive screen and an eardrum-rattling sound system. “The Walk” is a relatively small story that ascends to breathtaking heights. It’s easily the most enthralling experience I’ve had at the movies this year.
Some of you might be familiar with the story of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon Levitt), an artist and performer who dreamed of wire-walking between the two towers of the World Trade Center. The story made worldwide news in 1974 and eventually was made into successful documentary a few years back, “Man on Wire.” I wondered if this story was interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention for a two-hour movie. It really is—surprisingly so.
Much like Ridley Scott and “The Martian,” director Robert Zemeckis (“Flight,” “Cast Away”) is a master of crafting a crowd-pleasing feature. However, over the last 10 years, he’s kind of become lost in a computer-generated sea of special effects-driven dreck, like “Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol.” Fortunately he’s returned to more mortal pursuits, and “The Walk” is a beautiful balancing act showcasing drama, comedy and thrills.
We meet Philippe atop the Statue of Liberty as he narrates the story of how he became obsessed with the idea of staging his “coup.” His youth is spent as a street performer in Paris, where he perfects the art of wire-walking and charms audiences with magic, juggling and mime-like shenanigans. While visiting a dentist’s office, he sees a story about the World Trade Center’s construction—and his obsession is born.
The first half of “The Walk” is the kind of earnest, unapologetic character drama with which some might struggle. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance is more hyperactive instead of exuberant; it easily could be described as “cloying.” He’s doing his best to channel the real Phillipe Petit, who is quite a character. I found the performance oddly theatrical and eventually quite engaging. He mixes an irksome smirk and a pea-soup-thick French accent into a strange stew.
Throughout the first half of the film, we get brief glimpses of Phillip’s early years: his strained relationship with his family, the education in wire-walking he gets from an aged mentor (Ben Kingsley), and meet some of the people who would eventually become his accomplices. All of it is good, but the first half of the movie never quite gets to great. It’s the second half that elevates it into the “must see” category. Once Philippe’s plan kicks into high gear, the film becomes something unique. It’s an amazing combination of thriller-like tension and breathtaking beauty.
The last 40 minutes of “The Walk” is a visual masterpiece that’s difficult to capture on the written page. Zemeckis always has been fascinated with special effects. With “The Walk” he raised the bar to create a visual spectacle that makes the most out of the big-screen experience. When Phillipe first steps out onto the wire, I felt the anxiety, thanks to pristine visuals and technology that provides an infinite level of fo us between the foreground and the background. While I don’t have a fear of heights, I know the anxiety of looking down on tall buildings, like the World Trade Center, Empire State Building, and the Eiffel Tower. There’s the same sense of disorientation in the film. The anxious feeling resurfaces. Zemeckis not only recreates the event, but uses technology to add an extra level of tension.
“The Walk” generates thrills that so few films are ever able to achieve. It isn’t just a movie that should be seen on the big screen but one meant to be seen as a cinematic experience. This is a reason to plunk down $16 and strap on those IMAX glasses.
For my money, “The Walk” was the most entertaining two hours I spent at the cinema in 2015. Indeed, it’s intended for its medium: the theater. It’s as much an art exhibition as it is a motion picture.