The Walk: One Good Scene Does Not A Good Movie Make

the walk

Why would the story of Philippe Petit’s criminal and magnificent wire-walk at the top of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center need to be told again when we already have James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire? The answer proposed by Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk is that a Hollywood studio budget can allow him to recreate the death-defying stunt in magnificent 3D. And truth be told, there is no denying that the movie’s wire-walking climax is a truly outstanding sequence. I’m particularly susceptible to heights (deathly afraid of them), but this 110 stories-high walk, as rendered by Zemeckis and his team, will provide enough tension to alarm even the bravest of daredevils. It’s truly a shame, then, that such an outstanding sequences would be surrounded by ninety minutes of unacceptably bad filmmaking.

According to its closing credits, The Walk is based exclusively on Petit’s autobiographical book To Reach the Clouds, which is ironic considering its structure is so similar to that of Man on Wire. It opens with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays Petit) talking directly to the camera from atop the Statue of Liberty, a device that I suspect is meant to represent him warming up the audience like he would a group of people gathered to watch him perform on a street corner, but does feel an awful lot like documentary narration. Why stick so close to Man on Wire‘s aesthetics when you already have to convince people there is room in this world for two movies on the same subject?

I don’t think the similarities are fueled by any kind of insincere desire to mine elements that worked so well for the documentary, but by sheer incompetence. The Walk tells Petit’s story in the most -for the lack of a better term- basic way it possibly can. By the fifteen minute mark, the movie has already has allowed itself the three weakest story-telling devices a movie could possibly indulge in: framing device, narration, and flashback. Three devices that can certainly be used to great effect, but rarely are (a great example of framing device and narration working beautifully would be The Grand Budapest Hotel).

The Walk uses these devices in the most obvious ways imaginable. Truly, the reason why its first hour is so hard to sit through is the way it runs Petit’s fascination for the tightrope through the assembly line of inspirational stories about eccentric and passionate heroes, giving him a cute love interest (Charlotte Le Bon) and a stern and quirky mentor (Ben Kingsley). The story beats are so familiar you feel you’ve already seen this movie even as you’re watching it, and the aesthetics equally obvious. Zemeckis’s version of France is underscored by romantic French covers of American pop songs, and his New York by tough ’70s rock.

Zemeckis leaves no room for interpretation, everything that can be said will be said, and everything that is said should be taken at face value. This is most obvious in Philippe’s narration, which drains the life out of almost every visual choice based by the movie. There are some suggestive images whose beauty is simply ruined by the excessive over-explanation of the voice-over. The movie is so inelegant that at one point, the very same piece of information is given twice -once by a character, once by narration- within the span of literally one minute. Even the choices that are supposed to be subtle scream out their purpose.  When Philippe flies to New York to see the Twin Towers for the first time, for example, the soundtrack plays a song that goes “take me higher and higher”.

Zemeckis’s hand can only produce broad strokes. Thus, the element that could most probably have redeemed the enterprise ends up being the one that suffers the most in comparison to Man on Wire: the characterization of Petit himself. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a charismatic actor, and his French accent as Petit isn’t nearly as bad as some people would have you believe. The problem is that Petit himself is an incredibly oversized character, whose fervent way of speaking can only be pulled off by the man himself. The words that come off as poetic when spoken by the man himself in the documentary become pure nonsense when spoken by Gordon-Levitt. To be fair, I don’t think any actor could have succeeded at the task.

I’m not a huge Man on Wire fan, but that movie seems to have found exactly the right way to tell this story. Large part of the documentary’s appeal is discovering the extravagant character that is Petit, and realizing how uniquely obsessed he is with his stunts. There are certain characters whose charisma can’t be recreated. The Walk succeeds at capturing the death defying magic of Petit’s greatest stunt, but it fails to capture the essence of the man walking on the wire. For Petit, there was no reason to walk between the towers except that they were there. It’s this sense of freedom that The Walk, trapped by the constrictions of overly literal narrative cinema, simply can’t capture.

Grade: 5 out of 10.

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15 comments

  1. smilingldsgirl · September 27, 2015

    Oh that’s too bad. Was looking forward to this one. Will still probably see it but was hoping it would be great because I loved the documentary .

    • Conrado Falco · September 28, 2015

      I think you will definitely enjoy the towers sequence, and who knows, you might like this more than me. I know of people who loved it.

      • smilingldsgirl · September 28, 2015

        I will definitely give it a shot. We will see.

  2. The Animation Commendation · September 27, 2015

    So you don’t feel JGL can get an Oscar nomination for acting for this one?

    • Conrado Falco · September 28, 2015

      I’d be truly surprised if he did. I feel like there are probably stronger and meatier performances coming up in other movies later this year.

      • The Animation Commendation · September 28, 2015

        Oh ok. My guesses for Best Actor nominations are Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), Will Smith (Concussion), and Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs).

        The 5th place, I think, will be either JGL (The Walk), Tobey Maguire (Pawn Sacrifice, if this film counts since it’s technically a 2014 film, I think), or Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl).

        I feel Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies) is an extremely slim case, but still possible too.

      • Conrado Falco · September 28, 2015

        Yeah, I think you’re guesses are probably close to what’ll end up happening. I’m seeing ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ soon, so I’ll keep you posted on my thoughts on Fassbender and Hanks. I also hear that Matt Damon is really good in ‘The Martian’, and could get a nomination if the movie’s a big hit.

      • The Animation Commendation · September 29, 2015

        Eh, I don’t see ‘Martian’ getting any acting noms, but that’s just me. I still have to see the film.

        I find it funny how Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain acted in 2 astronaut films back-to-back, lol.

      • smilingldsgirl · October 14, 2015

        I’ve heard it is Leonardo Dicaprio’s year for the Revenant

      • The Animation Commendation · October 14, 2015

        This is the first year that I’m actually prediction NOMINATIONS rather than winners and I’m mostly doing this for the Best Actor category. Because I think 4 will definitely be:

        Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)
        Johnny Depp (Black Mass)
        Will Smith (Concussion)
        Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)

        I’m not sure of the 5th one though, but Leonardo is a good possibility. I was also thinking maybe Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) or Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies).

      • smilingldsgirl · October 15, 2015

        Cool. The trailer for the Revenant looks really strong. I think him and Tom Hardy will be nominated. People were a little mixed on Black Mass so I wouldn’t be surprised if that one gets forgotten. Plus you can never count out the actors from a Tarantino movie- The Hateful 8- getting nominations. We will see!

      • The Animation Commendation · October 15, 2015

        Ah, true. Forgot about that movie.

      • Conrado Falco · October 15, 2015

        I think most of the Hateful 8 actors are going to try and get nominated for supporting, so that’ll leave some room in the lead actor category.

      • smilingldsgirl · October 15, 2015

        That’s probably true because it is an ensemble piece.

  3. smilingldsgirl · September 28, 2015

    It’s tough to know in September who will be nominated

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