READ MORE: Anne Thompson on NYFF’s Opening Night
There are many reasons why “The Walk” made a good fit for the opening night of the New York Film Festival, irrespective of its flaws: Robert Zemeckis’ vibrant depiction of French high-wire artist Phillipe Petite (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) traipsing between the Twin Towers in 1974 is a love letter to its setting; Zemeckis, whose last movie “Flight” closed the festival, carries the signature of a precise director that the NYFF tends to favor; the stars fit the demands of the red carpet. Petit’s escapades, last told in James Marsh’s terrific 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” provide an ideal template for a crowdpleaser, striking exactly the sort of celebratory tone to set the stage for three weeks of cinema.
Most of all, “The Walk” worked for the opening night slot because it makes a passionate case for the power of the big screen moviegoing experience. While it fails to convey the depth of Petit’s bold ambition, and its sugary tone waters down the drama of his reckless antics, the striking image of Petit traveling between the towers with only a balancing beam as his guide translates quite nicely to cinematic terms. Zemeckis, a filmmaker whose career blossomed in a blockbuster age when many more viewers preferred the theatrical experience to home entertainment, pushes that agenda in nearly every scene.
From its opening minutes, “The Walk” unleashes a grab bag of tricks engineered for a large format. Presented at the festival in RealD 3D, it features eye-popping, IMAX-friendly visuals that poke out at viewers’ eyeballs and sometimes threaten to pierce them. As Petit recalls his early performance artist days as a mime on the Parisian streets, Zemeckis presents the playful character in black-and-white, while individual objects that figure into his antics stand out in color. He juggles bowling balls that hover just beyond the edges of the screen, but the grey images point to the silent film era — a Chaplinesque quality that connects the story to cinema’s past.
Collectively, the effects wizardry amounts to a depiction of its carefree protagonist’s fantastical life, and the way he sees himself as so much larger than it. Petit is a showman readymade for luring the masses to the multiplexes, an agenda to which Zemeckis can no doubt relate.
For most part, all these elements don’t interfere with a story that’s all about the extreme desire to put on a good show. But the one problematic special effect is the accents. The enjoyably smarmy Gordon-Levitt does his best to imitate French cadences, but in this case, imitation is less a form of flattery than accidental parody. It only gets worse once Ben Kingsley surfaces as gruff circus manager Papa Rudy, who helps train Petit against his better judgement. A British actor playing a Czech immigrant speaking French, Kingsley’s considerable talent fails to work around this mangled approach. Fortunately, “The Walk” mainly focuses on Petit’s physicality rather than his eloquent dialogue, which makes its distracting qualities largely forgivable.
More problematic, however, is the one-note quality allotted to the movie’s sole female character, Petit’s main squeeze Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who’s hardly more than an ongoing source of encouragement for Petit’s daring plans. Her underdeveloped behavior points to the movie’s lack of investment in creating a credible environment. The early seventies in the United States, an era of tremendous cultural upheaval, war protests and national confusion over the country’s direction, never enters the pictures. While it brings Petit’s story into the 21st century with a series of closing acknowledgments of the Twin Towers’ history, the identity politics of “The Walk” feel decidedly retro.
Yet no matter its numerable shortcomings, everything in “The Walk” is artifice, and at times that works in its favor. Unlike the documentary, Zemeckis’ version shows less interest in Petite’s ethically dubious behavior and instead reduces his story to a simplistic, Disneyfied notion of chasing one’s dreams.
Of course, no working filmmaker enlivens that concept better than Zemeckis, and to that end, “The Walk” is a fun distraction. The director uses the wide screen to convey the thrill of the tightrope experience, from unsettling moments when Petit chooses to look down to extreme closeups as his feet start to tremble on the rope. These queasy shots would hardly carry the same impact on a tiny screen.
But the movie truly comes alive once Petit reaches his destination, as the camera swirls around him in a simulated environment just a few steps shy of a virtual reality experience. Dangling between the towers while seemingly all of New York watches from afar, Petit exists in a unique arena of his own making. Even so, with CGI elements standing out, the sequence reeks of fabrication. Zemeckis’ various experiments with motion capture animation would have been welcome here, since both the mood of “The Walk” and the way it explores various themes register as cartoonish.
However, the movie’s weakest link involves routine cutaways to Petit speaking directly at the camera from a simulated Statue of Liberty. Narrating the story from his imaginary perch, Petit interrupts the action far too often, at times breaking up the suspense of individual moments. His backdrop sets up a thin statement on the possibilities of the American dream, as the Twin Towers linger poignantly in the background. More than that, the Green Screen Guide epitomizes Zemeckis’ affection for movie magic.
That fixation stretches across the mainstream offerings in the NYFF lineup, which also includes Ridley Scott’s CGI-heavy survival thriller “The Martian” and Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” Thirty years ago, these same filmmakers comfortably indulged in the possibilities of the big screen spectacle. Today, they’re battling to keep it relevant.
“The Walk” is peppered with dialogue that speaks to the power of the theatrical spectacle — and its reliance on viewers to care about it. “There is no show without an audience,” Papa Rudy says, which may as well serve as the filmmaker’s thank you note to anyone who turned up. “The Walk” certainly speaks to the balancing act of keeping the appeal of the theatrical moviegoing experience in check in an age of rising home viewing habits. Like Petite’s wire, it’s still there, but the anxiety that it could break at any moment hovers all around it.