I should start off with this: if you have a fear of heights, stay as far away from this film as possible. Now, when I heard the news that “The Walk” was headed into production, I couldn’t help but shake my head. The story of famous high-wire artist Philippe Petit was already beautifully told in the Oscar winning “Man on Wire”, a film that is personally my favorite documentary. I knew for certain that this could never surpass that quality, yet I was still interested in how the material would be handled when I heard Robert Zemeckis, director of “Forrest Gump”, “Back to the Future”, and, “Cast Away” got on board. My curiosity rose even more as I discovered that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was cast as Petit and would need to pull off a French accent. Taking all of these obstacles into account, I was pleasantly surprised to find “The Walk” succeed as such an enthralling visual spectacle.
The first shot of the film consists of Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking directly into the camera while standing atop the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, this awkward, unnecessary narration continues throughout the film’s entire duration. Breaking the fourth wall is a tool that can be effectively utilized when it adds something that is not already addressed by the visuals, but here that is not the case. The narration takes us by the hand and tries to advise us exactly when and what to feel. Apart from some clever jokes here and there, this approach generally falls flat and takes us out of the moment. Nevertheless, the story the narration tells is nothing short of inspiring. Petit is an unusually fascinating character thanks to his absurd and unceasing motivation to walk on wires. Never for a second does he doubt his ability. This confidence coupled with his charisma creates a compelling character that is impossible to take your eyes off of. Perhaps casting an actor who is actually French would have played the role more convincingly, but I have to admit that, based off of the documentary, Gordon-Levitt nails all of Petit’s mannerisms and relentless enthusiasm.
At its best, “The Walk” impressively makes you feel as if you are actually walking between both towers of the World Trade Center. This final act of the film is so stressful and nerve-racking that much of the audience at the screening I attended were forced to look away at points. Even I found my palms grow sweatier and sweatier as this final walk progressed. Because of this, if there is any movie to buy an IMAX 3D ticket for, this is the one. At points, however, it almost felt like I was watching a video game rather than watching a film. There’s such an artificial look to certain shots that I was abruptly taken out of an otherwise frighteningly realistic experience. Still, these few instances do not take away from the overall immersion.
Although “The Walk” does not reach the heights that “Man on Wire” achieves, it does offer a new and thrilling perspective on Petit’s art. For instance, the documentary brings his final performance to life only through photographs and some reenactments; there was no actual video footage shot the day of the walk. In “The Walk”, however, we experience this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle right by Petit’s side in real time. As perhaps the most immersive scene I’ve viewed all year, every shot is breathtaking and captures the horror that one-misstep would result in a tragic death. This alone is absolutely worth the price of admission. Furthermore, the film expands on Petit’s early fascination with the circus and street performances that the documentary seemed to glance over.
“The Walk” is a film that never once lost my attention. Sure, at points it’s hokey and over the top, but there exists an overarching sense of magic and wonder throughout. It’s also quite beautiful to view such convincing Twin Towers stand tall, and the final moments before the credits particularly pay a subtle tribute to them that could not have been executed any better. As much as “The Walk” will be compared to “Man on Wire”, I ultimately believe it should not be. It adds to the miraculous story what its predecessor simply could not, and for that, it has a significant worth. If you plan on seeing this film at all, do yourself a favor and see it in IMAX while you can.
Written by Harrison Jeffs