Cinema at large generally views filmmaker Robert Zemeckis as an entertaining visualist, perhaps once pegged to supplant the populism of Steven Spielberg’s thrilling works. As the director of “Back To The Future,” a pioneer in the world of live-action/animation hybrids (“Roger Rabbit”), and a trailblazer in the world of motion capture imagination (“The Polar Express” and “Beowulf”), Zemeckis’ largely commercial, popcorn tendencies often belie and camouflage their subversive qualities. The helmer usually goes uncredited for writing and approaching mainstream moviemaking in a method largely untraditional by Hollywood standards (perhaps because many of the movies themselves are ultimately fairly traditional). Zemeckis’ career is marked by films without major antagonists (“Cast Away,” “Contact,” “Flight,” even Biff in “Back To The Future” is more source of conflict than movie nemesis), and sometimes feature fully-formed characters who undergo no arcs or changes (“Forrest Gump”). His movies often center on a protagonist who has to battle themselves or alter the world to their will to achieve his or her unimaginable goals.
And so Zemeckis’ latest, the 3D IMAX spectacle “The Walk,” melds all these unorthodox traits: a movie sans villain that features an unwavering, largely unchanged lead whose greatest obstacle is the world around him, and, sometimes, his own self-doubts. But these unconventional characteristics, while admirable, are often hampered by the rest of the scripting: “The Walk” is broadly written, with two clunky first acts that are saved, arguably superseded entirely, by its nerve-wracking, majestic, and spectacular finish.
“The Walk” centers on the real-life exploits of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a confident and chimerical French high-wire artist who pulled off the unfathomable feat of tightrope walking between the World Trade Center Twin Towers in 1974. For 45 minutes, 110 stories above the Manhattan concrete, without any safety measures, Petit walked among the clouds, and Zemeckis’ movie is largely a tribute to this amazing feat that redefined the meaning of art in the 20th century and the man brave, and foolish enough, to pull it off. “The Walk” begins in 1973, detailing the life of Petit as a young quixotic and guileless street performer (juggler, mime, et al) entertaining audiences on the streets of his native Paris. Happenstance and fate supply Petit with the insane idea and ambition to wire walk between the WTC towers, and through the guidance of circus ringleader and former high-wire daredevil Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the uncompromising tightrope walker eventually travels to New York to fulfill his dangerous and inconceivable fantasy.
The dream itself, and its death-defying achievement on screen, is tense, anxiety-inducing, and ravishingly grand, and it’s boundlessly suspenseful even though we know the outcome. However, it’s the journey to the destination that’s sorely lacking, even if it seems meaningless in hindsight — “The Walk” is a movie fully engineered toward its radiant crescendo and doesn’t place much of a premium on its origins.
As a writer/director (the movie is co-written by Christopher Browne), “The Walk” once again illustrates Zemeckis’ facility with visuals and his deficiencies with words. The movie is replete with problematic, corny, and on-the-nose elements, plus a goofy tone that undermines it. A cheesy and tedious direct address framing device has Gordon-Levitt retelling his entire experience to the audience throughout the movie as Petit across from the Twin Towers on the Statue Of Liberty through clunky, expository, and largely unnecessary voiceover (telling the audience what they already see onscreen is always pointless).
Much like “Flight,” which used classic rock to dubious effect, music isn’t really Zemeckis’ forte (he has the musical taste, it’s the execution that’s lacking). Paris is musically epitomized by cliched whimsical accordions (the equivalent of “jazz hands”) and the retro-funk employed in the prep sequences is way more banal “Starsky & Hutch” remake than it is “Ocean’s Eleven” cool. But when the main thrust of the heist movie takes off, “The Walk” begins its ascent and your stress level may fly off the charts while you stare down imminent death.
Gordon-Levitt mostly convinces as the capricious and impulsive madman — the actor’s French is surprisingly impressive, but his Parisian accent filtered through English often leaves something to be desired. The writing does no favors to any of the stock supporting characters, though some of the actors do elevate middling material. Charlotte Le Bon co-stars as the object of affection, and hers is as thankless a girlfriend role as they come.
The who, what, where, and why of Petit, what motivates his aims and crazy ambitions, largely remains a mystery. We don’t ever understand Petit’s madcap drive, because “The Walk” isn’t really interested in it, and there’s little emotional investment put in this particular character’s success. But strangely enough, to the movie’s credit, once the procedural, prep, and phenomenal act takes place, it doesn’t really matter. In this sense, “The Walk” succeeds despite itself and perhaps is a testament to how Zemeckis’ unusually formed screenplays can still work.
Akin to an ugly, clumsy caterpillar that comes into its own when its metamorphosis begins, when “The Walk” begin spread its wings, its transformation is glorious; as if all its various beauties were just bursting to come out all along. As such, its unexpected emotional force nearly blindsides the viewer. The third act of “The Walk” arguably makes the case for Zemeckis as artist. When words and plot are dispensed with, Zemeckis is free to soar narratively and emotionally though a type of visual, sonorous, mostly-silent poetry (though that clumsy voiceover still occasionally rears its head).
As the playful, sometimes silly tenor gives way and the film begins to bloom, “The Walk” dazzles with a (mostly) conflict-free 25 minutes of Petit just walking the wire (itself an unconventional ending if there ever was one). The score suddenly takes a walking-on-air poignancy and there’s a breathtaking exhilaration experienced by witnessing Petit’s feat — the VFX are so grand it’s easy to forget you’re watching a virtual 100% CG-created world. There’s so much to admire in the sublime and balletic last act, but especially, perhaps counter-intuitively, the visual restraint. A 3D IMAX movie about the Twin Towers could easily overdo itself with self-conscious, whooshing camera moves, but Zemeckis largely lets the vertiginous qualities of these unspeakable heights speak for themselves.
The specter of James Marsh’s fabulous documentary about the same subject, “Man On Wire,” initially looms large over “The Walk,” but it should be said that Zemeckis’ third act largely matches the awe-inspiring beauty and majesty of Marsh’s Academy Award-winning doc.
Supporting cast members include Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Clément Sibony, César Domboy (as his French and American accomplices), but it’s James Badge Dale as a charming co-conspirator who continues his run a captivating scene stealer (time for a meaty lead role, people).
As uneven as “The Walk” may be overall, it’s certainly Zemeckis’ best film in some time. It also arguably reverse-engineers the narrative of “Flight” — which put its death-defying set piece at the beginning of the film — to great effect. Ultimately a fable about a feat so immeasurable it’s hard to believe it actually happened, its triumphant climax is so stirring, damn if the last act doesn’t wash away most of the movie’s early and clumsy aftertaste.
An ode to artistic achievement, dreaming the impossible dream, and even a surprisingly moving tribute to the World Trade Center towers, “The Walk,” in its final moments, even borders on something transcendent; a love letter to New York in the sky writ large. And as a side note, it makes for a perfect opening night movie for the New York Film Festival. [B]