TRANSCRIPT of THE WALK: A Slightly Off Balance Cinematic Spectacle

2015 is the 30th anniversary of the release of director Bob Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. With this week’s release the Zemeckis directed The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as real life wire walker Philippe Petit, will he have something new to celebrate?  

If there was ever a movie marketed for family viewing that should come with the warning “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME”,  THE WALK is it.  Based on real life, as written in the book ‘To Reach the Clouds’ by French wire-walker Philippe Petit, it tells the story of how he successfully balanced on a high wire and walked between the north and south buildings of the Twin Towers in New York.  THE WALK is a testament to big thinking, eternal optimism, and a nearly deranged determination. Never attempted before or since, his death-defying walk a quarter mile from the ground was and is mind-boggling. In THE WALK, Zemeckis captures both the caper-like planning of the walk and the majesty of the walk itself.  The movie is a must-see on IMAX and 3D for the tremendously captivating, engrossing, vertigo-inducing last 45 minutes that show, through the magic of special effects, Petit walking in the clouds above Manhattan.  Gratefully, the audience knows going in that the wire-walk was successful.  It will still have many viewers shaking their heads, watching through splayed fingers, and holding their breath. Both the IMAX and the 3D are essential, almost acting as visual spokesmen for the towers and the wires stretched across them.    

Though neither French nor a redhead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt embodies the mix of wily frenetic energy and tenacity for which Petit is known, and masters the french accent just enough to demand we forget all but the story at hand. A featured appearance by Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy gives some of the weightier moments in the story, as when he reveals just how supportive of Petit’s ‘coup’ he is, even if he fears for him and doesn’t understand why he must do it.

The only misstep here is an overabundance of narration by Levitt as Petit telling his own story. It feels superfluous, and since it doesn’t add insight into Petit’s motivation or emotional perspective, its inclusion sometimes tips the scales from whimsical to cloying.  We aren’t really allowed into Petit’s head, which we only really notice in the moments where Petit speaks directly to the camera, via CGI, from his perch at the top of the Statue of Liberty.

Ooooh, but the wire-walking is a truly spectacular, visceral tour de force. From our seats in the dark theater, Zemeckis reminds us with this story that it requires teamwork, determination, and a little arrogance to make a dream into a reality, and treats us to a tiny immersive version of a peak experience at once terrifying and magical.  What ultimately happened to the World Trade Center makes Petit’s ‘coup’ so much more important in retrospect. As if in quiet memorial to them and the loved ones lost on 9/11, there is, as well, a poignancy to Zemeckis’s story of a man and his quest. In 1974, it gave, as quoted in the film, “a little more soul to the Twin Towers”. 

I give THE WALK a solid B.  Indeed, the spectacle Zemeckis achieves, and Gordon-Levitt coming into his own as a big budget movie star is something to celebrate.