The Walk, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit (the only man to ever walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center) is directed by Robert Zemeckis (who also penned the screenplay) and despite the grand scope of the project; IMAX, 3D, feels like an ode to Jacques Tati, as well as the French high wire artist whose feat the film features.
Literally, it seems as though Zemeckis zeroed in on the time period and chose the cinematic offerings of the French performer between the late 1950s (Mon Oncle – 1958) through to the 1970s (Trafic – 1971) to emulate and project the 1974 epic “coup” by Petit and his band of “accomplices.” The film’s colours could have been selected from that palette that Tati specified for his comic films.
The tone of The Walk is one of, if not comedy, then at the very least light amusement. Make no mistake, there are moments of pure comic delight. For example, when Petit meets street busker Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) in a Parisian square and she berates him for stealing her customers. When two “American” tourists misinterpret their “mime” interaction for a show, she speaks “country-bumpkin” English, much to the delight of Petit (Gordon-Levitt).
She then reverts to French to tell the other street artist what she thinks of him. Petit tells her, a couple of times, that he prefers her English. This scene then segways into a “boy meets girl” scenario that allows for the first of Petit’s accomplices to come on board for his dream of walking between the Two Towers.
There is a lot of lightly comic moments. The Zemeckis film is taken from the 2008 documentary (Man on a Wire – Director James Marsh, written by Philippe Petit from his book To Reach the Clouds) and provides a humorous recounting of the artist’s beginnings, his obsession with the Twin Towers and his journey to walk the wire between the newly built American icons.
Zemeckis has a long list of funny films under his belt, Romancing the Stone, a runaway hit for the director who then followed up with the mega successful Back to the Future, where he returned again and again along with many other comic efforts. The director has a deft touch where needed and he does not disappoint with this loving tale of one man’s desire to go where no man has gone before.
Everything about the film works, the music, the fashion and the locations all feel like 1974 America. The end result is a comically delivered project where none of the wonder and majestic scope of the feat is lost. (In terms of locations, there are a few locational mistakes but this is a movie and not a documentary.) Gordon-Levitt proves that he really is an American version of Sir Alec Guiness; a chameleon. While we can recognize the actor under all the makeup, which does make him resemble the real Petit rather remarkably, it is his performance that convinces and changes him into another person entirely.
Charlotte Le Bon, as Annie, is the perfect compliment to Joseph. This actress, who was one of the best things about the 2014 film The Hundred Foot Journey, has excellent on screen chemistry with Gordon-Levitt. Possessed of what seems to be an inner amusement and a capacity to flare up with righteous anger when required, the Canadian performer is a personal favorite and always a delight to see on screen.
Ben Kingsley plays “Papa Rudy” and once again the Oscar winning actor proves that he is this generation’s Sir Laurence Olivier. Sir Ben Kingsley was awarded the knighthood in 2001 (Sir “Larry” in 1947) and looking at his performances, including his role as cabbie/driving instructor Sikh in Learning to Drive also out in 2015, it is easy to see that his cameo was considered a different sort of “coup.”
Members of Petit’s team of accomplices are made up of some very talented supporting players. James Badge Dale is amusingly competent as the charismatic “jack of all trades” conman who opens doors and is flexible to the nth the degree.
Scottish actor Steve Valentine not only sounds so much like the late actor Lee Van Cleef (if listening with eyes closed one can envision “Angel Eyes” delivering the lines) he also resembles him a great deal. If ever a biopic of this professional “bad man” in the movies is made, Valentine should play him.
(Or any unnecessary remakes of Italian Spaghetti Westerns, should definitely hire Valentine to play any of the many roles that Van Cleef took on over the years…)
Over and above performances, the palette or the ambiance of the film, Zemeckis puts the viewer right up on the high wire with Petit. From the safety of the cinema seats, or the familial settee if watched on DVD, we can sense the immense height, the wind, the heart stopping thrill…
There are still comic moments added into the film’s finale. Considering the almost bittersweet tang that remains after the final line from Petit, it is just as well. It has been 14 years since 9/11 but the poignancy behind the “forever” line is still keenly felt.
The Walk is a brilliant film, another docudrama on offer, like Trumbo, where the audience is given a brief glimpse of someone real. In both films the acting is spectacular and spot on. Both entertain, although from different ends of the spectrum. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon and Robert Zemeckis give us a film worth watching.
5 out of 5 stars for humor, intelligence and some great breath-taking acting. See this one.