Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Ben Kingsley (Ghandi), Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey), James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3)
Director: Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future)
Writers: Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne
Runtime: 2 hours 3 minutes
Release Date: 9 October (US, UK)
Amongst the great filmmakers working today, Robert Zemeckis’ name is one often forgotten. We all remember his films like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump and many others, but despite this he doesn’t quite have the impact a name like Spielberg or Scorcese has. Maybe it’s because his output until recently has been dominated by iffy attempts at motion capture animation, maybe it’s because he doesn’t put his face out there or attach his name to other projects as much, but you cannot at all say it’s because he lacks a distinct voice. The Walk is unmistakably a Robert Zemeckis film in the traditional sense, and it’s a cinematic experience that really embraces the magic of the medium.
Based on the life of high wire artist Philippe Petit and his famous 1974 crossing of the World Trade Center (previously covered in the excellent Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire), The Walk isn’t what I’d describe as a traditional biopic. Whilst the key events themselves are certainly accurate, Zemeckis chooses to tell the story in a far more fanciful way. This is clear from the opening moments as Petit (Gordon-Levitt) directly talks to the audience and provides running commentary on the whole film. It’s a jarring and bizarre choice at first, but as the film goes on it becomes clear this is all part of Zemeckis’ plan. Much like how Petit treats his art with an enchanting sense of awe, Zemeckis is trying to pull that same trick on the audience and lets the film play more like a fairy tale than a true story. The first two thirds are effective set-up that lets us get to know the characters, and the film’s playfulness means everything moves at an appropriately bouncy speed. But it’s the film’s final third that are the real reason to watch it, with Petit’s walk itself depicted in awe-inspiring fashion that makes the exuberant tone really pay off, and the film’s final line and shot could easily render some to tears. The film isn’t without its problems though. Gordon-Levitt’s narration is still a bit much at points, often feeling less like a narrator and more like a children’s TV presenter, and the film constantly feels the need to explain why the characters are speaking in English rather than French, but the film’s overall effect is hard to deny once all is said and done.
Though his French accent is perhaps a little off-putting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s actual performance as Philippe Petit is spot-on. He captures that child-like enthusiasm and determination Petit has, but also the arrogance and frustration that make him human. He has his moments that make you doubt his sanity, but his undeniable charm always pulls you through and he ultimately makes the character work accent and all. Ben Kingsley does feel like he’s just taking another opportunity to try out silly voice as Papa Rudy, but in his few scenes with Gordon-Levitt there’s a strong bond and chemistry between these two generations of high wire performers. Charlotte Le Bon’s pleasant performance as Annie is more than welcome, but how her relationship with Petit concludes feels a little bit like an afterthought; it may be true to life, but that doesn’t stop it from being unsatisfying. The rest of Petit’s group is an interesting mix, with James Badge Dale’s Franco-Yankee J.P. being an amusing distraction and Cesar Domboy’s Jeff adding some much needed tension and dramatic arc to the final act. Benedict Samuel’s David is a stoner stereotype that feels superfluous to the plot and Ben Schwartz’s Albert is essentially there just to naysay, but their presence in the film is ultimately negligible. The movie belongs to Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt, and what they have to offer is more than satisfactory.
Zemeckis has always had a great visual eye and one of the few directors that embraces modern film technology in the right way (creepy motion capture films aside). That innocent sense of wonder the story has permeates everything on the technical side too, from Darius Wolski’s breathtaking cinematography to Alan Silvestri’s uplifting score that mixes French jazz with traditional orchestra feels. The visual effects are also staggering, recreating the World Trade Center and placing you with Petit on the wire in a completely seamless way. The Walk is also one of the few films since the resurgence of 3D that really warrants the format, especially during that final act; whether you have vertigo or not, it’s hard not to feel daunted by the sheer sense of height when all three dimensions are in play.
The Walk is the first film that’s made me feel like a child in a long time without appealing to nostalgia in any way, and that’s mainly down to the wonderfully exuberant way Robert Zemeckis decides to tell this story. It’s an approach no other sane filmmaker would make, but Zemeckis has the skill to make it work and it’s a gamble that pays off wonderfully in execution. The two thirds are well made and interesting enough on their own, but that climax easily ranks amongst the cinematic highlights of this year so far. Go see The Walk in a theatre, shell out for the full IMAX 3D experience if you can, and enjoy a movie that takes full advantage of everything cinema has to offer.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10