The Walk is an interesting movie from director Robert Zemeckis, who is unquestionably one of the modern pioneers of pure movie magic. After countless entertainments, he’s been one of my favorite filmmakers, someone always interested in pushing the limits of technology while still imbuing his movies with a sense of heart and character. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Castaway, the Back to the Future Trilogy, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Flight are all supreme pieces of filmmaking and storytelling, and in some cases, demonstrate a sense of the cinematic that has become downright iconic. Yes, a few of his efforts have left me cold, but most have been hugely rewarding, and I’m always curious to find out what’s next for him. Over the last 15 years, Zemeckis has become more and more interested in CGI and motion capture technology, and while I appreciate his desire to stretch the form, I love it when he gets back to live action filmmaking. With his latest endeavor, the visually splashy The Walk, I find myself caught somewhere in between; there’s no doubting the technical virtuosity at the core of this mostly CGI movie, and there are sequences that are genuinely stunning, but as a whole, the movie feels a bit off and a tad remote; a finer sense of the intimate might have better suited some of the storytelling. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is nothing if not totally dedicated to the role of Philippe Petit, the real life French wire walker who, in the 1970’s, strung up cables from the World Trade Center buildings, and proceeded to walk in between them, with no safety net or harness, repeatedly and rather enthusiastically, for the better part of an hour. Petit did this just to do it, because the towers were “calling to him,” and one must sort of wonder about his mental competency, but there can be no denying that he has a set of steel ones that cannot be broken.
This story was covered in the gripping 2008 documentary Man on Wire from filmmaker James Marsh, who turned his piece into an almost-thriller via the use of dramatizations and interviews. It was always going to be a challenge to equal or surpass Marsh’s effort with a traditional studio film. In The Walk, Zemeckis and his co-writer Christopher Browne unnecessarily saddle the viewer with a stop-the-movie in-its-tracks narration by Gordon-Levitt, who repeatedly TELLS us what we’re being SHOWN on screen – I didn’t get the point of this at all. Voiceover, when used properly, is supposed to give the audience MORE information, it’s supposed to provide even larger context and useful bits to the story, not serve as a repetitious annoyance. The shots of him doing this narration from the flame of the Statue of Liberty also look exceedingly fake, and in a movie where photo-realistic CGI is being used almost exclusively, these bits stuck out like a sore thumb. Had all of that stuff been removed, this is a stronger film overall. Once the movie gets going towards its mid-section and you see all of the pieces of the puzzle being put together (the who, what, where, when, and why of the insane endeavor), Zemeckis finds his engrossing groove, and the film breezes along to its predetermined destination.
And then there’s the final act, which, despite the fact that it was done entirely on a computer and the audience knows the outcome, is truly the stuff of sweaty-palms spectacle. There are some bravura shots of Gordon-Levitt standing in the clouds (literally), while the entire film has the surreal feeling of a pop-up-book (this quality was probably amplified BIG TIME in the theater). Seriously, had I seen this movie in the IMAX 3-D format, I’d have likely vomited; Zemeckis and the phenomenally talented cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Martian, Crimson Tide) made incredible use of the powers of CGI-assisted photography, speeding the viewer up and down the facade of the WTC (which, it must be said, is sort of creepy to be seen on this scale and magnitude so often), and showing all sorts of perilous angles from high atop the towers. The film’s final shot and line of dialogue have a surprising elegance and soulful quality that grounds the film in the harsh reality of our current social climate; it’s a moment that will cause many to pause and reflect for a few seconds. Now – bring on this WWII romantic thriller with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard – that seems like a Zemeckis movie that I’ll likely do back-flips over…!
Written by Nick Clement