New Yorkers staring skywards from below the World Trade Center, struck by a sense of terror and confusion, evokes dark memories of the not too distant past. However, in The Walk (2015), the latest film from Robert Zemeckis, the onlookers’ bewildered emotions are mingled with admiration, awe and sheer disbelief. This is due to French high-wire walker Philippe Petit (played with characteristically boyish charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attempting to traverse a cable linking the towers at 1,400 feet above terra firma.
The Walk builds to this moment and although the film has its faults, Zemeckis again demonstrates what can be achieved in terms of pure cinematic experience with astonishing visuals (in IMAX 3D, no less) that must be seen to be believed. Many viewers will be familiar with the August 1974 daredevil stunt from James Marsh’s Oscar-winning Man On Wire (2008). Whilst The Walk does not reach anything like the psychological heights of its documentary predecessor, Zemeckis allows us to see the unseeable.
Despite certain embellishments, the film stays largely true to form but its many narrative deficiencies begin early on. Gordon-Levitt, with dodgy haircut and disconcertingly blue contact lenses, stands atop a CGI-glorified Statue of Liberty speaking directly across the fourth wall. His retrospective narration (so, he doesn’t die then?) will interject throughout. His location is far removed from a documentary talking head but was otherwise a very poor choice. Going back to his humble street performing days, Paris is seen in monochrome before Philippe witnesses a girl playing guitar and his world is suddenly filled with colour. It’s the kind of subtle-as-a-brick visual cue that is seen in a perfume advert. The same can be said for hearing Sly and the Family Stone’s I Want To Take You Higher. Message received, loud and clear. It’s a pity that Philippe’s aforementioned beloved, Annie (Montreal native Charlotte Le Bon), is so one-dimensional, and that the rest of a dedicated entourage are so thinly sketched given their role in achieving the dream – a piano-playing stoner and laughable lowlight of the Oceans 11-styled motley crew.
Ben Kingsley brings benevolent warmth to tightrope-walking mentor Papa Rudy but his French accented Czech character is equally forgettable. The franglais blend of the script – jointly penned by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne from Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds – is flimsy; the irony being that Gordon-Levitt acquits himself admirably when speaking in French but is let down by English spoken with an affected Gallic accent. Using “We’re going to New York” as an excuse for a group of French people to speak English to one another is quite frankly unbelievable. The final nail in the coffin is the incessant use of the expression “le coup” for the main event, D-Day on the calendar – if there’s one French word an Anglophone audience will take away from The Walk it’s that. Zemeckis proved with Flight (2012) that he is capable of tackling serious subject matter but his latest outing reverts to type with style over substance. However, for all its storytelling shortcomings, The Walk is a must-see for its perilous, vertiginous, sweaty-palmed finale and its reminder that the Twin Towers can be remembered for much more than 9/11.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens