Very few people can say that they have done something as remarkable (or crazy) as Philippe Petit when he walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York City. Of course, a story this bold had to be put on film one day, right? Robert Zemekis took this challenge and made The Walk. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, and chronicles Petit’s beginnings as a wire walker in Paris, all the way up to how he was able to pull off his greatest spectacle at the World Trade Center. While the film is able to captivate the audience and bring them to the high wire with Petit, the rest of the film suspends the possibility that it could be anything more than a heist film, capped off with a daring stunt.
The first act of the film illustrations to the audience the story of how Petit became fascinated with tightrope walking, and why he chooses to walk between the twin towers. During this point, the film is set up very nicely, and we can easily understand that our main character has motives for obtaining this goal, rather than just being crazy. Because of this set up, the audience humanizes the character early on, and will care about the character, wishing for him to succeed as he struggles to pull off his stunt. This traditional setup is something that you expect with most films and it can’t really be criticized for following the norms of the heist genre, because these norms are necessary for the film to work. When these norms are done correctly, the second act can follow up and allow the film to stand out. Alas, the film struggles with the largest issue that the heist genre often faces: latching onto the “heist” of the film and reducing the characters to working parts within the story. The film focuses on telling the elaborate the story, rather than exemplifying dimensional characters. When a film takes this approach, the audience often walks out of the theatre in awe of the event that took place, but with limited knowledge of any character but the main character, who usually does get a few scenes of character development. While a film like The Walk can still be good, even with this approach, it will not be regarded highly in years to come like a film such as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. Ocean’s Eleven succeed because it defined memorable characters, which laid solid groundwork for multiple sequels (that ironically fell flat due to lack of characterization).
Since the film devoted so much of the story to the event itself, the event needed to be well executed in order for the film to be enjoyable. Luckily, Zemekis understood this as well, and pulled out all the stops in order to give the audience an engaging rendition of Petit’s accomplishment, by putting the audience on the wire themselves. The intensity of the event manifested itself physically, as an audible breath from the audience preceded the deafening silence that occurred as Petit took his first step onto the wire. During the wire walking sequence, the entire audience was on edge, not because they were afraid of the character on screen falling to his death, but because they feared for their own life. In fact, there are reports of the audience throwing up while viewing the film due to the triggering of vertigo. The special effects created an atmosphere that brought gravity to the situation unfolding on the big screen. Because of this, the audience was able to grasp just how meaningful each step of the heist was in making something of this scope pulled off flawlessly. If this payoff had not succeed, the film would have fell flat on its face, as every event leading up to the climax would have felt like a waste of time.
In conclusion, Zemekis’s The Walk brings to life Philippe Petit’s courageous walk between the twin towers. Even though the film does not chart any new ground in the heist genre, it is by no means a bad film. The payoff definitely makes the film worth seeing, especially in IMAX 3D if you have a little extra cash to spare. Even though it was not discussed in full, Gordon-Levitt’s acting also makes the film really enjoyable, as he masters a very entertaining French accent. With all of these factors taken into consideration, Celluloid Cinema gives The Walk 3 out of 5 Reels.
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