October 10, 2015

The Walk

This mock-up demonstrates how much I'm
going to drink before trying this stunt.

Grade: C +
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley and Charlotte Le Bon
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hr. 3 min.

If The Polar Express elevated director Robert Zemeckis’ visual acuity to new heights, it also broadened his reliance on caricature over character. Two more motion capture films followed that prioritized style over substance, then even the R-rated Flight was eroded by half-written supporting roles, heavy-handed metaphors and a soppy ending.

There’s a moment early in The Walk, the latest from Zemeckis, when the director rewinds the milieu all the way back to 1968 Paris. The palette goes grayscale—save for a glint of Spielbergian red—and street performer Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) peddles about the city on his unicycle sporting a top hat. I half expected to see a baguette tucked under his arm.

Petit earns local acclaim as a tightrope artist, slacklining between trees and walking a high wire across the Notre Dame Cathedral. But his dream is stringing and traversing a steel cable between the nascent Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

The painstaking planning and intricate execution of Petit’s self-described “coup” in 1974 is fascinating, although it’s also material covered in greater detail in James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. The full impact of Zemeckis’ 3D IMAX visual wizardry in The Walk is felt during the roughly half-hour act as Petit crosses the mise en scène 1,350 feet over Manhattan. The audience soars above and around Petit as he paces, pirouettes, kneels and lies on his wire, spurring acrophobia even among the steadiest of stomachs.

Unfortunately, that sensational sequence is sandwiched between essentially a live-action cartoon. Beyond Gordon-Levitt’s excessive emoting, bad wig and Pepé Le Pew accent, every character—lead and supporting—comes in easily conceivable form. A passing American tourist in Paris wears a cowboy hat and Texas twang. Some of the youngsters Petit recruits to help carry out his stunt are ‘70s stoners straight out of a Cheech & Chong flick. There are ‘Noo Yawk’ cops, and a construction foreman softened by small talk about “that SOB Nixon” and how the country went to hell after Kennedy died.

But the most irksome, infuriating element of The Walk is Petit’s intrusive, needless narration. It tramples almost every scene, including the climactic coup, when Zemeckis’ stark visuals have already conveyed all necessary sentiment. Moreover, Gordon-Levitt (as Petit) frequently delivers these asides atop a mock-up of the Statue of Liberty’s torch against the digital backdrop of the Twin Towers jutting from the Manhattan skyline.

The film’s obvious effort to juxtapose Petit’s heroism alongside 9/11 pathos isn’t offensive—his tale can’t be told today without at least unintentionally evoking the looming tragedy to come. And the assertion that Petit’s accomplishment breathed life into buildings that many New Yorkers previously considered eyesores is backed by some contemporary commentary and oral history.

But all that is sufficient for a spectacular short film, not a long, weary Walk.

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