THE WALK (Movie Review)

walk
***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
for thematic elements involving perilous situations, brief nudity (rear male), language, brief drug references, and smoking

Released: September 30, 2015
 on IMAX; October 9 nationwide
Runtime: 123 minutes
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Ben Schwartz

The Walk is ranked #14 in the Honorable Mention section of my Top Ten List for 2015

Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back To The Future) clearly had a lot of ambitious goals for The Walk, but my biggest takeaway likely wasn’t one of them: this shows exactly what’s wrong with superhero movies.

Based on the real-life attempt by French performer Philippe Petit to conduct a high-wire act between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974, The Walk – without even trying to, but by the sheer virtuosity of craft – exposes the limp monotony that passes for hyper-kinetic action in the Marvel Universe and (thus far) Zach Snyder’s DC slate that began with Man Of Steel, and does so at about 1/6 the budget of those franchise tentpoles. If you don’t experience this on the big screen (while you still can), you’re really missing something special.

While Philippe Petit’s story has nothing to do with ones originated by Stan Lee or Bob Kane, he does venture out into the realm of superheroes, defying gravity one-hundred stories high as he navigates daunting skyscrapers of the urban jungle. The Walk captures the queasy nail-biting intensity of performing humanly-impossible acts at over 1300 feet, in a way no comic book movie ever has. Sure, both Marvel and Zemeckis rely on special effects to achieve their ends, but Zemeckis goes a vital step further to harness classic cinematic language (i.e. his use of camera, editing, music, and so on) within a specific character-based vision to make you experience a level of exhilaration – and an enormity of scale – that no slick superhero movie ever has.

Of course, to better understand The Walk as a whole, we first have to make a genre shift from comic book movies to heist capers. Stylistically, that’s the broad approach Zemeckis takes here. Petit and his team aren’t scheming to steal anything but it’s an illegal break-in nonetheless, one that requires complicated logistics and high risks to pull of “the coup”, as Petit gleefully calls it. Zemeckis approaches this with a light, jazzy tone that makes the movie as much of a breezy romp as anything else, which also helps to capture the vibrant life-embracing spirit of Petit himself.

And yet Petit’s conviction to pursue this dream is not belittled or compromised. He’s a passionate man who’s passionate about his art. Yes, his art. Most may view this merely as an audacious, crazy stunt, but for Petit – like all artists – he does it to elevate humanity’s self-perception, and to bring life where others can’t see it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, Looper) embodies that bliss, that compulsion, that joie de vivre, with a purity that is contagious and inspiring, while also mastering the physical rigor and grace required to make this performance – and movie – authentic (even if his French accent is hit-and-miss).

Even before the harrowing climax – as we see Petit’s early background, the perfecting of his talent, and the preparation for the coup – The Walk is a first-rate entertainment, captivating the full range of our senses, making us thrilled and nauseous in equal measure, all while raising the emotional and personal stakes. And so we’re not just entertained; we’re emotionally invested in Petit, his team, and his dream. When it’s all on the line, we feel it.

And then it finally comes: the moment, the coup, the walk. It’s what everything’s been building towards and, thankfully, Zemeckis neither rushes nor short-changes this magically surreal event. It’s also where he elevates his movie above the generic bloat of most blockbusters (Marvel and otherwise). Instead of “playing up” the tension with swirling camera moves, fast-paced editing, or bombastic music, he takes the opposite approach at every turn. There’s no need to manufacture tension; it’s inherently there in the act itself (whether you view it in 3D or not).

The camera is calm, slow, and often still. Shots live and breathe, not constantly cutting between multiple angles or points of view. The music is sparse and tranquil. Zemeckis’s primary purpose isn’t to heighten our anxiety (even though he does); it’s to reveal Petit’s serenity and focus. While the visuals help us (and our stomachs) to feel the act, Zemeckis’s tone helps us to feel Petit’s experience of it – which is completely the opposite of ours. Petit’s not doing it for the exhilarating rush. He’s an artist making art, one defined by beauty and majesty, not shock value. And so, even as we gasp and flinch, the mood is one of personal, even spiritual, elation. Zemeckis doesn’t simply capture this inexplicable exploit; he captures what it’s really all about.

And in doing so, not only does Zemeckis make one of the best Hollywood entertainments of the year, but he also makes us feel good about the World Trade Center again. It’s a cathartic gift to spend a couple of hours thinking about the Twin Towers in a way that lifts us up and brings us joy. The Walk helps us to see the Twin Towers as they were meant to be seen: not as memorials of pain and grief, but icons of human achievement and grandeur. Not of what we as people are capable of at our worst, but at our best.

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