Movie Review: The Walk (2015)

walk3Sigmund Freud once stated, “A madman is a dreamer awake,” and you can be sure there was no one madder than French Aerialist Philippe Petit. Driven by creative passion, a resilience of spirit, and a touch (or more) of naive lunacy, Philippe famously wire-walked more than 1,300 feet above New York streets, between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974. This highly illegal and rebellious event has been chronicled in great detail, most notably in James Marsh’s thrilling documentary Man on Wire (2008)–a film so well executed that is plays more like a heist film than a documentary. Man on Wire showcases the rigorous planning and awe-inspiring execution of the incredibly dangerous stunt that resulted in Philippe’s personal transcendent experience, where spectacle became art-form. It’s this creation of performance art that hyperbolic dramatist Robert Zemeckis wanted to encapsulate through 3D IMAX filmmaking in The Walk, which he does at a serious cinematic cost. Hampered down by lazy screenplay devices (such as incessant narration), torturous dialogue, an alienating goofy tone, and two clunky, uneven beginning acts, The Walk struggles to soar to its breathtaking ambitions because of its extremely faulty foundation. Although the final act crescendo examines Philippe’s wondrous feat through meticulous recreation, it’s undeniable that the film’s lacking of heart fails to recreate the imaginative soul of an artist who inspired the world to believe in the reality of dreams.

Meaning and purpose haven’t exactly been substantial aspirations for Zemeckis. Most of his films from the past decade have moved beyond the sentimental pull of Forrest Gump (1994) to embrace the full capabilities of special effects, including his stale and forgettable CGI works of The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), and A Christmas Carol (2009). Though cumbersome focus of CGI creation looms over The Walk, it seems fortunate that Zemeckis has returned to a familiar theme explored by his previous works–the beauty of innocence and optimism prevailing against self-doubt and indifference toward a pessimistic universe. Philippe (played by an elfin and manic Joseph Gordon-Levitt) might be part artist and part madman, but he is thoroughly an unwavering optimist who merely whispers his doubt so it can hardly be heard by the fates. It’s unfortunate that such a charismatic and inspirational figure is handled with such amateur fumbling of script, co-written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne. Based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds, the first two acts are not only guided by an overwrought expository narration (repetition of word when visual suffices), but also broadly written, to avoid any semblance of character motivation, discovery, or depth. Clearly, Zemeckis isn’t concerned with the origin of his protagonist; rather, he inserts obligatory marks to get to the death-defying sequence that magically caps the irritating and bumbling buildup.

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Unfortunately, the film doesn’t find its purposeful rhythmic groove until the momentous third act—a heist procedural of prep and execution that matches the detailed pacing of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955). It is quite a final act, one that features light-footed pacing aided by Alan Silvestri’s insistent, poignant score, as well as some delightfully unexpected deviations that almost derail the plan. The visual excellence of Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is what allowsThe Walk to confidently embrace its masterful conclusion. His multi-angle presentation immerses you into Philippe’s beautiful and balletic triumph, all created from 100% CGI by Kevin Ballie through Atomic Fiction studios. Despite the clumsy voice-over narration that persists occasionally, the final 25-minutes is an overwhelmingly silent and poetic affair that finds emotional beauty, moving away from its burdensome script. It is certainly an audacious, inspiring, and encapsulating piece of cinema in glorious 3D that proves Zemeckis might be the cinematic equivalent of Philippe—dreaming of the impossible and believing in the power of human creativity. One question remains: is it worth it? The answer is up to those willing to sit through a lumbering setup that annoys more than it charms.

It doesn’t help that the usually delightful Joseph Gordon-Levitt is at his most aggravating in his portrayal of Philippe Petit. He finds moments to be convincing as the impulsive aerial madman, especially in his cat-like mimicry on the wire (developed in a one-week crash course with Petit himself), but Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal is burdened by a cartoonish Parisian accent that is devastatingly lacking. His voice and presence guides the entire film’s narration demise, atop the Statue of Liberty, which could be the laziest and most maudlin device used within the film. His accent isn’t the only one to pierce our ears. Even Sir Ben Kingsley, as Philippe’s irascible mentor Papa Rudy, has a European accent of indiscernibly mixed Czech and French that results in pure hokey tones—a steady issue that’s present throughout the film. And despite Gordon-Levitt’s consistent appearance on the screen, we are saved by a series of scene stealers, especially James Badge Dale and Steve Valentine as Petit’s American accomplices in “the coup.” Also, Charlotte Le Bon is a graceful presence, enhancing the middling script and its atrocious dialogue. But as competent as the supporting cast might be, it’s just unfortunate that the soul, the complexity, and the person that was Philippe Petit is diminished through a poorly designed script and an adequate choice for his portrayal.

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No motivation or birth of passion is adequately explored in Zemeckis’ film, which would have been the safety net needed for such a beautifully risky creative endeavor. There is no adequate defense for a film that does not even attempt to juggle the essential elements of character depth or creating an emotional core. What’s left is pure spectacle–a majestic, nerve-wracking, and astonishing exhibition that serves as an ode to artistic achievement in its careful re-creation of Philippe Petit’s impossible walk. Without that foundation of substance, The Walk loses an integral part of its enthralling story, of exploring those things that inspire dreamers, who in turn inspire us.  Still, The Walk can be considered a stunning achievement of boldness and ability from Zemeckis, who utilizes the innovation of special effects beyond its aesthetics into something perceptible. It’s said, and hinted at, that Petit’s tremendous feat brought love and admiration from New Yorkers toward the Twin Towers, once viewed as bland, and arrogant intruders of their cherished skyline. Despite its faults, The Walk brings a somber, reflective note of endearment and appreciation back to the artist, the buildings he gave a soul to, and the beauty of dreaming with your eyes open.

Grade: C+

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