THE WALK (2015)
Running Time: 123 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Language: English and French w/English subtitles
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Simony, Cesar Domboy, Steve Valentine
Philippe Petit’s daring 1974 tightrope walk between the legendary Twin Towers as portrayed by a mostly French cast led by an American film crew and actor. When news of the construction of the World Trade Center’s signature Twin Towers reaches France, street performer Philippe Petit sees more than just a structural marvel. He sees an opportunity to make the coup of a lifetime by walking a tightrope the 140-foot distance between the towers, over 1,300 feet above the streets of New York City. His elaborate scheme requires meticulous planning, highly involved mechanical physics, and, of course, a team of equally subversive insurgents eager to ensure perfection in its execution just weeks after the buildings are opened to the public.
Based on the true autobiographical story To Reach the Clouds by Petit, the artist’s thirst for adventure is brought to life on screen in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, leading in a Forrest Gump-esque narration of the Petit’s coup. Petit, a curious child, finds joy in life while walking the tightrope. Aided by tightrope family man Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), Petit meets people along the way from France to New York equally dedicated to pull off the plan.
The supporting cast is beyond impeccable. The performance by accent-versatile Canadian Charlotte Le Bon is complemented by French actors Clement Sibony and Cesar Domboy. James Badge Dale makes stands out as a French-speaking American shopkeeper. Steve Valentine has fun as the WTC inside man.
Although clearly a story meant for a French ballet, American show business has its ways of creating its own vision of the art of Petit’s walk. Director Robert Zemeckis hits the notes intended, and the final product does its work. The mild French comedy presence keeps its origins intact, but at times the effects of American drama can be a bit overbearing.
Petit’s story has been retold many times since the death-defying walk. Notably successful has been the post-9/11 children’s storybook The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. In 2008, Magnolia Pictures released a collaborative project produced by BBC Storyville, Discovery Films, Red Box Films, The UK Film Council, and a Warner Bros. UK subsidiary Wall to Wall. That was MAN ON WIRE, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film.
Petit’s walk itself made headlines around the world and brought a more pleasant feel to the majestic towers, which at the time of the walk were not as popular visually with many New York residents. Additionally, it was a pleasant distraction for the American people from the escalating Watergate scandal.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in prime form as Petit, who was on set to train the actor himself in the art of the tightrope walk. His heart is fully immersed in his performance as always. In addition to a superb command of the French language and accent, Gordon-Levitt brings grace and peace to the tightrope walk with a truly heartfelt performance. Yes, that’s actually him most of the time. To recreate the buildings destroyed in 2001, Hollywood Reporter’s Ashley Lee has said that the famous walk as shown on screen was recreated on a soundstage roughly 12 feet high.
Lee also said in her report that Gordon-Levitt was helped on set with his French by co-stars, particularly Le Bon. He apparently learned to speak fluent French with a flawless Parisian accent. His French conversations with other characters on screen are nothing short of grand and hilarious. “Les carottes sont cuites” never sounded so genuine in an American film.
Alan Silvestri presents a tremendous score that intensifies the suspenseful moments, but also gives elegance and grace to the funny moments. It’s when the two meet that that imbalance of drama and comedy becomes prevalent. At the same time, his music creates the true ambiance of a French comedie aux Americain.
On account of well Gordon-Levitt pulls off a French comedy protagonist, one wishes more of the film were shot in French. The language transitions and acknowledgements in the script almost feel like it might have had the potential to be pitched to Quentin Tarantino. Dale also take the cake on the American-French accent.
Zemeckis told the Hollywood Reporter he “ended up using every special effect technique” he had ever used, minus the cartoon visuals popular in BEOWULF and THE POLAR EXPRESS. The IMAX 3D experience is only missing the wind to give a sense of how high up Petit was.
Despite the versatility of the actors in the cast, it seems as though a different direction could have been made. French comedy almost seems like it is as criminal to American drama as Petit’s stunt was to law enforcement. The two genres seem to be fighting one another instead of meshing to create balance and harmony within the film.
While the visual effects are remarkable, the story and execution are very dramatic, though it is clear they were intended to pay homage classic to the French style. While a tightrope walk at 110 stories is meant to be breathtaking, at times it seems there is too much attention paid to the obvious imminent danger. There seems to be an imbalance when suspense is introduced creating a contrasting relationship between the act itself and the rules being broken to achieve it.
Regarding story execution, the narration is cute and only interjects when necessary. However, flashback scenes told while the story is unfolding feel misplaced. It’s almost like Forrest Gump were telling his life story to all those people running with him. Still, Gordon-Levitt’s charm bring Philippe Petit’s story itself to life on screen. He is perfectly cast and embodies what true performers do in their practice. The cast of French, American, and Canadian actors blends together perfectly on screen.
In the end, THE WALK is a universally entertaining story that will satisfy and delight all. For all its worth, the IMAX 3D cinematography is not for the acrophobic. Otherwise, it is perfect for any movie theatre visit. Between the equally proud viewership of French and American cinema-goers, there is something for everyone here.
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