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The Walk (2015)

Absurd on a Wire

Like the buildings that inspired it, Robert Zemeckis’ World Trade Center drama The Walk is a magnificent feat of engineering that collapses into its own footprint. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit, a French performance artist and high-wire specialist who dreams of walking between the Twin Towers on the eve of their completion in 1974. It’s a truly amazing story that deserves to be told—and has been, in Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds, and in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire.

So what does Zemeckis bring to the table? Besides a game cast and dazzling visual effects that once again  make a great case for 3D/IMAX technology, he also comes armed with a weeping reverence for the Twin Towers and an impulse to out-Gump his worst saccharine instincts. The result is a film that nearly buckles under Gordon-Levitt’s goofy, brie-laden Sesame Street narration while also offering the kind of genuinely dizzying spectacle that audiences simply must leave their homes to appreciate.

The first forty minutes of the film are a cartoon. A young Petit gets ousted from his disapproving parents’ home and comes under the tutelage of legendary circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). He befriends a street musician/art student named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who helps Petit turn his burgeoning wire-walking skills into paid performances. Soon, the couple are flying to New York and scoping out the finishing touches of the World Trade Center—which Petit had spotted in a magazine and declared the future site of his greatest artistic accomplishment.

Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne handicap their film from the start, introducing Petit as an omniscient host of his exploits who sits atop the Liberty torch, with the Towers gleaming in the background. He's an exuberant, arrogant, relentlessly optimistic caricature of the French Artist who feels like he could only exist in a celluloid world of black-and-white flashbacks, French covers of American pop songs, and swirling CGI pans of CGI characters traversing CGI wires between CGI landmarks.* Were I not aware that The Walk was based on a true story, I would not have believed that such an obnoxious personality could rally a small group of co-conspirators to help pull off what amounts to an extremely dangerous and grand-scheme pointless crime.**

At just about the halfway mark, Petit begins collecting people (he calls them “accomplices”), and the filmmakers steer The Walk into territory I’m not sure they’d intended to navigate. A black cloud of creepiness envelopes the film as Petit and Annie recruit a disparate gang of misfits--including an electronics store clerk (James Badge Dale) and a businessman who works in the North Tower (Steve Valentine)--to help them scope out security, calculate the stunt’s logistics, and smuggle their elaborate gear up to the 110th floor.

They forge identities, set up a fake company, recruit more malcontents, and drive a white van into the WTC parking garage—all of which are ingredients I’ve considered harmless in countless popcorn heist pictures. However, in the context of The Walk’s particular location, I couldn't help but wonder how much of these comically portrayed exploits mirrored the work of those who ultimately brought the Towers down. Additionally, Petit constantly references the need for his walk to occur on August 6th, even heavily circling it in red on a calendar. That this day would become infamous for its unheeded warnings of terrorism twenty-seven years later is perhaps a cosmic, sinister joke that Zemeckis reinforces by making every civil servant in the film an unobservant buffoon.

I found myself a bit soul-sick in the middle of this allegedly whimsical film, and was more than a little surprised to see those clouds part in the last thirty minutes. When Petit makes his final preparations to walk between buildings, warming up in his open-air “dressing room”, The Walk eases into a different tone—that of a bona fide artist’s-process movie. Gone is the main character’s innate silliness, replaced with a higher-consciousness concentration and awareness of (but not attachment to) his surroundings that make the centerpiece a rousing experience. The digital artistry and cinematography in this last extended sequence are so good as to be incongruous with the showy non-reality of everything that came before it. My brain knew that Petit’s walk was all a show, abetted by technology and supported by history, but my stomach believed otherwise. If there was a way to pay a partial admission to experience The Walk's climax in all its giant-screen, three-dimensional glory, I would wholeheartedly recommend that.***

But there isn’t, so I’m left with an “Enter at Your Own Risk” endorsement. The Walk ends as gracefully as it begins catastrophically. Just before the film fades to black, Zemeckis finally switches from crayon to calligraphy in composing his love letter to the Towers, to New York, and to big-hearted ambition, as embodied by Petit. It’s a bittersweet creative capper to one of our nation’s darkest hours, a meta-reminder that wonder can rise from tragedy, but not without leaving immortal psychic scars.

*In real life, Petit worked extensively with Gordon-Levitt on his wire-walking skills. It comes to little good in the end, since Zemeckis infuses his movie with so many fuzzy green-screen edges that absolutely everything looks like the victim of a computer pass or digital face replacement.

**Calling Petit’s work “pointless” is, I recognize, a potentially incendiary indictment. Art, after all, is in the eye of the beholder and the artist. But Zemeckis and Browne spend so much time on back story and laying out the wire walk that they forget to explain why we should believe in Petit’s objective—beyond the fact that it actually happened. Contrast this with the equally spectacular but far brainier and emotionally honest Everest, a film that shows and tells a great deal about man’s quest for conquering heights.

***There’s a moment involving a bird that you simply must experience with a packed theatre.

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