We’re always told to reach for the stars, but the closest most of us get is flying in an airplane (with the clear exception of astronauts). In a magnificently rendered vision of New York City in the 70’s, one man performs a dizzyingly daring deed that inspires a nation in The Walk.
The framing device starts off like a door-to-door salesman trying to sell you a vacuum cleaner, but instead of a vacuum cleaner it tries to sell you on Philippe Petit and how amazing he is. You may not think you need this particular vacuum cleaner, but after hearing it’s history and everything it can do there’s no way you won’t fall in love. Despite all the pretension and bravado, you will come to find Philippe as charming as he thinks he is. His grandiloquence is authenticated when we see the true extent of his skill and we suddenly accept everything he says as truth. His constant narration occasionally comes off as impersonal, where you feel like he is just telling you a story regardless of whether you actually want to hear it.
The way the story is told through this framing device matches the personality of the daredevil the story is based on. Philippe has a specific approach to reaching his goals, sometimes alienating his friends and loved ones on the way. Ultimately, the genius behind it becomes apparent to everyone and you accept the eccentricities because you realize the reward will be worth it. The first third of the film, where Philippe is giving us his backstory, is the hardest part to get through because of his constant narration that we have yet to find endearing. He mentions every detail, often times breaking down any metaphors or forms of symbolism rather than letting us experience them for ourselves.
The tone and pace changes slightly for the middle third of the film, where it more or less resembles a heist film. The planning and preparation process moves so quickly that it almost feels like a montage. It’s remained fairly lighthearted and comedic up to that point, with glimmers of romance, but it is all in preparation for the tense finale.
Robert Zemesckis lends his hand in creating the type of engrossing environments his films are known for. Not just setting the tone with the writing, but also constructing a familiar world from our own past. His recreation goes well beyond the visual aesthetic (like the marvelous reproduction of the World Trade Center), and envelops our other senses. The vacuous sound with a subtle breeze and the quiet ambiance of the city’s noise put you on top of the wire with Philippe. The impressive depth of the 3D visuals (especially when seen on an IMAX screen) will entrance you and keep you on the edge of your seat. The final third of the film is so engulfing, that even a person with no fear of heights will likely leave the theater feeling a varying degree of vertigo.
It is easily recognizable how Joseph Gordon-Levitt grounded this high-wire film with his performance, accent notwithstanding. He embodied Petit’s joie de vivre to the fullest extent, always remaining respectful even when he almost verged on caricature. Yes, the accent really was that bad, but his French was surprisingly fluid and natural. His character’s pupil relationship with mentor Ben Kingsley eclipses any romantic entanglement he had with Charlotte Le Bon’s character. The emphasis remains on Philippe honing his skill and preparing for his greatest challenge, so naturally Kingsley’s character’s role is of greater importance than anyone else in his life. Luckily, Ben Kingsley aptly rises to the occasion in one of the best performances he’s given us this year.
The film ends on a bittersweet note, just after his triumphant success. It serves as a reminder of how two buildings turned into a symbol for the American Dream. Then it is ominously juxtaposed by showing how one man’s greatest day atop these pillars of patriotism would later become one of the darkest days in American history.
RATING: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)