New York Film Festival Review: The Walk

Robert Zemeckis, who in your life told you it would be a good idea to have The Walk‘s main character narrate the movie while standing on the Statue of Liberty’s torch?

Because that person does not have your best interests at heart.

That would be the groan-worth opening scene of The Walk: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as French wire walker (and documentary subject) Philippe Petit holding court on the torch’s observation platform with a CGI New York skyline in the background. As the movie progresses, we’ll cut back to him periodically as he monologues about life and le morte, his history as a street performer and the genesis of his dream to do a high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

Loooorrrrrd, my God. That was a bad call.

Actually, there are a lot of bad calls in The Walk, the New York Film Festival’s opening night film. Primary among them is the decision to delegate the famous wire walk to the last 45 minutes or so of the film, the first major chunk being taken over by Petit’s backstory. That may seem like an obvious choice in a fact-based film like this, but it just plain doesn’t work. As Zemeckis said in his post-press screening Q&A, he actually planned to do The Walk before the Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire, audiences’ most likely point of entry to the Philippe Petit story, came out. So maybe it’s unfair to compare the two films, but dammit, Man on Wire did a better job of showing who Petit is, of letting us into his world and helping us understand why his band of merry misfit accomplices would help him do something that’s at best illegal, at worst fatal. One thing Gordon-Levitt has never lacked is charisma, but for the first hour or so of The Walk, that’s all he has to support him. If you’ve watched Man on Wire, you’ll know Petit is a dramatic guy with a tendency towards grand gentures. The Walk gives us nothing deeper than that. There’s no sense of his inner life. He’s less a person than a cardboard cutout with a Pepe Le Pew voice and the occasional tendency to break out into mime.

Where The Walk really comes into its own is when Petit and his crew–including girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), long-time friend Jean-Louis (Benedict Samuel), and flaky Albert (Ben Schwartz)–set into motion Petit’s plan to wire walk between the two towers. Here, you get the sense of why Zemeckis wanted to make this movie: so he could have a chance to play around with vertigo-inducing 3D and IMAX. To his credit, it works: The visuals in this segment are engrossing and occasionally terrifying. And the lead-up, involving Petit’s team sneaking up to the top of the towers and setting up the rig in the dead of night, all the while attempting to avoid security guards and dealing with one of their number’s fear of heights (César Domboy, a standout because his character actually got something to do), was more engaging than anything that came before.

So it makes you wonder: Why in the hell wasn’t The Walk a heist movie?! Start the movie when the team gets to New York and use interactions between the characters as they plan the walk to bring out what of Petit’s backstory you need. (You don’t need much.) In the process, we could have gotten more of a sense of the other characters, who for the most part remain woefully underserviced and undersketched despite being played by excellent actors. Poor, poor Charlotte Le Bon, whose entire character arc, from cringe-inducing meet-cute onward, involves being supportive of Petit, bringing him food, lecturing him on being more empathetic and then going off into the sunset to “follow her own dream.” Like anyone knows–or cares!–about what her dream is, because she is The Girlfriend and very little beyond that.

The Walk is absolutely shit at characters and great at visuals and tension, and the fact that Zemeckis didn’t play to his strengths and focus entirely on those last two is a damn shame. I honestly don’t know who I’d recommend this movie to. The walk scene is great, but in order to get the full effect you have to see it in full IMAX 3D, so you’d essentially be paying $20 minimum for 45 minutes of good film and an hour-plus of pablum.

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