Despite Moments of Visual Splendor, ‘The Walk’ Stumbles When it Matters Most

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After nearly a decade of making movies exclusively in the Uncanny Valley, Robert Zemeckis returned to the land of the living with 2012’s Flight, which was not exactly a rousing return to form for the director. Once again making a live action film, Zemeckis teams up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the IMAX 3D spectacle of The Walk, the real life story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The resulting film is quite unbalanced but is still a visual marvel. It also, however, contains some of the most egregious voiceover in recent memory. Unfortunately, this is a movie with a built-in commentary track.

We’re instantly greeted with Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt) addressing the audience directly as The Walk opens. Petit narrates to the audience his days a unicycle-riding street performer on the streets of Paris before taking us back to when he was first captivated by a high-wire act as a child. After training himself through his formative years, Petit soon finds himself learning from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a circus veteran of mysterious national origin who imparts his gruff knowledge to his protégé. Petit soon earns the affections of Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow street performer and art student. Once Petit learns of the World Trade Center, which are still under construction, he has a dream to walk on a wire between the two massive towers. In France, Petit assembles a team to help him achieve his goals, including Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), the official photographer, and Jean-François (César Domboy), a math teacher afraid of heights. When they finally reach America, Petit spies on the construction and working of the towers and formulates a plan to install his wire and walk on it. To pull it off, he assembles the American portion of his team, including the French speaking New Yorker J.P. (James Badge Dale), the tower worker Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), and two hippies, Albert (Ben Schwartz) and David (Benedict Samuel). Despite all odds, Philippe Petit gets his wire across the towers and performs a walk unlike any other in the history of mankind.

The first third of The Walk contains glimpses of the visual flair that Zemeckis will bring later on in the film, but it also brings plenty of the unnecessary voiceover that will undermine the movie at its most dazzling moments. This first part of the film isn’t ever captivating – the mentor/protégé relationship between Petit and Papa Rudy never firmly takes hold, nor does the burgeoning romance between Petit and Annie. It’s really the last third of The Walk when the film begins to find its footing as the film takes on the form of a heist movie, and James Badge Dale shows up to inject a much-needed sense of humor and life to the proceedings. Also adding a bit of humor is a somewhat underutilized Ben Schwartz, but he’s forced to play opposite of Benedict Samuel’s grating hippie stereotype that is intended to be funny but really isn’t amusing as much as he is annoying. (It’s not so much the actor as it is the character.)

The high-wire walk itself is some remarkable visual filmmaking. Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski bring a dizzying sense of scale to Petit’s daredevil stunt. But, as happens time and time again in The Walk, this breathtaking moment is undermined by the wholly unnecessary voiceover. Zemeckis, a smart visual filmmaker, co-wrote the script with Christopher Browne never allows a moment to pass without having Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s French accent describe what we’re seeing, which is something fairly antithetical to a visual medium. That voiceover also makes Gordon-Levitt’s accent become tiresome rather quickly, highlighting the exaggerated inflection for far longer that it should. But when it matters most, as Petit is soaring above New York, the voiceover never subsides. We’re not allowed to soak in the visuals without being told what is happening, which, frankly, I found quite insulting.

The Walk never finds its balance as the wondrous visuals are consistently undermined by a tendency to state the obvious. While it’s a step above Flight, Zemeckis might’ve spent too much time lost in the Uncanny Valley to find his way through filmmaking in the land of the living. The high-wire exploits of Philippe Petit have already been examined once before in the excellent documentary Man on Wire, and if you’re not interested in the spectacle as much as the story, I’d recommend the documentary instead. But if you want a lush visual spectacle where everything you’re seeing is described in great detail by an American actor employing a rather silly French accent, The Walk definitely toes that line, and toes it early and often.

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