Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

October 18, 2015

Living Vicariously Through The Walk

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I really don’t like watching movies in 3-D. Bulky glasses that give me a headache and make everything in the background look blurry don’t enhance my moviegoing experience. Furthermore, I’ve found that, in general, 3-D makes the action on the screen look less real and is a constant reminder that I’m in a movie theater watching actors.

Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

The Walk is a rare case of 3-D used for a purpose other than stealing the audience’s money. The film tells the amazing true story of Philippe Petit, who walked on a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. Director Robert Zemeckis, the man behind Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, has a strong history of using visual effects to enhance his movies, and The Walk’s use of 3-D allows us to experience a historical event that, up until now, only one man in the world could have claimed to have experienced.

The movie only exists in order to showcase its final act, but it’s really three short movies combined into one. It begins with what is essentially a superhero origin story about how Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) became a wire walker and got the idea for his feat. Then Zemeckis goes into heist-film mode as Petit and his assembled team illegally navigate the Twin Towers and numerous unexpected obstacles to set up the wire, accompanied by a Mission: Impossible-esque score. You won’t remember most of this by the time you leave the theater, however. Compared to the cliché, albeit enjoyable, first 90 minutes, the walk itself is a breathtaking immersion into a moment in time.

We literally feel as if we’re on the wire with Petit as the sun rises on New York City. The 3-D effect allows us to feel the thousand-foot drop to the ground, and the camerawork puts us in Petit’s shoes. When Petit focuses on his destination, we only see the other tower in the middle of an empty sky. When Petit loses focus and looks down, we look down. The soundtrack, including a gorgeous original score by Alan Silvestri as well as classical pieces such as “Für Elise” invokes the serenity that Petit describes feeling while he performs. Despite the fact that The Walk’s grand finale made a lot of audiences tense and nauseous, the music, combined with Levitt’s cool, collected face and the backdrop of the New York City skyline (recreated impeccably by CGI) made me feel calm.

If only Zemeckis treated his storytelling with the same meticulous care as he does his visuals. The supporting characters are underdeveloped, particularly Petit’s girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who is reduced to a typical female only in the movie to support the male protagonist by doing things like telling him to get some sleep when he’s tired. Additionally, Petit’s generic mentor “Papa Rudy” is played by Ben Kingsley, whose sort-of-French, sort-of-Czech, sort-of-English accent is distracting, to say the least. Also distracting is the nearly constant narration of Petit, telling us exactly what he’s doing as we’re watching him do it; we don’t need him to explain that he’s looking down at the crowd on the streets below when the camerawork does the job just fine.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived my whole life in New York City that I was mostly able to forgive these flaws. The movie is as much a tribute to the Twin Towers as it is to Petit, and the scenes that take place atop the skyscrapers seem so real that it’s easy to forget the tragedy that the towers no longer exist. I wouldn’t blame any New Yorker for tearing up towards the end, as the film gives a nod to the fact that not all good things can last forever.

When I first learned that The Walk was in development, I had just watched the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which gives a factual account of Petit’s story with such detail that I thought a dramatic version would be unnecessary. Having now seen The Walk, it is actually an excellent complement to Man on Wire. With the latter, we get to know Petit and his accomplices and delve into the philosophical question of why they would risk death and jail sentences, respectively, to carry out their plan. The former, while admittedly sacrificing thematic exploration and thorough storytelling, actually puts us on the wire in a way that interviews and photographs cannot. In this sense, The Walk not only accomplishes its ultimate goal, but reaffirms why we go to movies — to experience something that we can’t in real life.