Robert Zemeckis seems to be one of those directors who not many people bring up when referring to one of the greats. He revolutionized time-travel films with Back to the Future and directed Tom Hanks in the role that would get him his first Oscar, Forrest Gump. He even helped him earn a second nomination with Cast-Away and directed Denzel Washington in an Academy Award nominated performance in Flight. He has an impressive resume but a lot of his credit seems to go unnoticed. Hopefully, after The Walk more will recognize him for the talent he is because while it's a flawed film, it's one of the best IMAX 3D experiences of the year.
In order to review The Walk one has to acknowledge the documentary Man on Wire. By doing so one has to also acknowledge the fact that Man on Wire is one of the best documentaries to ever have been created and by effect another live-action retelling of this story is unnecessary. But the story of Philippe Petit is so intriguing and demands to be witnessed in the film medium so if it must be done again, why not in the right hands? And therein lies the answer why the retelling of this story in the hands of Zemeckis is acceptable. While it's not his best work and doesn't surpass the documentary in terms of storytelling, The Walk proves that Zemeckis one of those directors where all of his films feel different but you can tell their his; it's another unique addition to his resume.
The Walk opens with narration from Petit (played confidently by Joseph Gordon Levitt) that never EVER stops. It's a narration that at times feels boggling and unnecessary and even takes away from some of the more dramatic tension. This tiny aspect of the film is what seems to hinder Zemeckis' film from standing apart from the documentary. The voice-over is all exposition and interrupts a lot of the suspense. While Levitt does it with blazing charisma, it doesn't garner necessity as the film progresses into the final act.
Speaking of Levitt, this man can do no wrong; he has touched nearly every genre and his dedication to his craftsmanship is undeniable. However, his performance as Petit is seemingly flawed. His accents are hard to buy and there are moments when he is reaching so high for audience empathy but fails. Petit is portrayed as a very over-the-top, ambitious and sometimes cartoonish character that it's just too much to accept. As mentioned before, Levitt is very charismatic and not just on camera. His campaign with hitRecord is very inspiring and he's played many memorable characters in the past. While he does seep into the role of Petit, it seems like the direction he and Zemeckis were aiming for just wasn't the right target. We do understand his drive and passion, his desire to achieve such an impossible feat is not implicit but a majority of his performance doesn't click. On the contrary, when he is on the wire and performing his magic, we do feel connected and we do believe this character. His performance sways between mesmerizing and good all too many times.
Zemeckis is a good character director: Forrest Gump from Forrest Gump, Marty McFly from Back to the Future and Whip Whitaker from Flight. He knows how to create intricate and complex protagonists as well as other characters for them to interact with. Yet, in The Walk we don't seem him to that quite as well. With the exception of Petit's love interest Anne Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) and Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy), all of the other characters are one-dimensional and generic. The main emphasis of The Walk is Petit but we don't get enough sides of him because the interactions between him and his teammates are too stale and scripted. Petit is the only fleshed-out personality in this film and that's a major downfall considering that every other team member was important in the real story.
The first half of the film takes place in Paris while the second takes place in New York and where the film really falters is the pacing. All of the set-up and "pre-New York" material is incredibly clunky and stylistically feels like a different film. There's some use of Black and White that is out of place and some of the more humorous scenes don't click. Once we jump into New York though, the beat is quickened and when there's tension, it is very effective. However, this imbalance really harms the film from feeling cohesive and the third act suffers as a result. It begins to lag and there is a bombardment of 9/11 references and metaphors that make us question what is more important: Philippe Petit or the towers? In the cast of this film, it should be our main character but The Walk continuously throws suggestive material insinuating that it wants us to walk away with an impression of the attack as opposed to his accomplishment.
But what The Walk showcases, most importantly, is Zemeckis' adept ability to incorporate dazzling and rich visual effects and CGI. This is a skill he has always been a master-class of and the scenes atop the North and South towers in which Petit is engaging in death-defying phenomena is a sheer spectacle to behold on screen. It almost seems as if the entire budget was dedicated to these sequences and it's during these moments that Levitt shines as well. The determinism in his eyes despite what some may call insanity and the passion behind his motives really present themselves. The camera lingers on mind-bending angles and allows us to seep in the scenery then presents us with another equally if not more impressive cinematography.
The Walk is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen mainly because of its third act. The visuals and characterization of Petit are the most well-crafted during this portion of the film. Zemeckis' use of camera space and depth is acute and while the rest of the film may be flawed, it's the last forty minutes that are why this movie is worth the ticket price. The tone is inconsistent, the style may not resonant perfectly with audiences and Levitt's performance is very over-the-top sometimes but in the end there is inspiration to do something great.