Active Ingredients: Heist elements; Optimism; Vertiginous height
Side Effects: 3D; Supporting characters; Imprecise psychology
The Walk is a warm-hearted but empty-headed film, an ode to “dreams,” “inspiration” and “beauty” without making those words and emotions come alive.
The deck may have stacked against The Walk from the beginning, burdened with animating the backstory of Philippe Petit—the French tightrope walker who improbably and illegally walked between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and whose story is told in the documentary Man on Wire—and ascending to its finale. And indeed, director Robert Zemeckis does rely on a lot of shortcuts (narration, oversimplified motivations, elision) to introduce us to its hero, attempt to tell us something about him, and get him to the scene of the crime in New York City.
Like this year’s Everest, The Walk features a protagonist attempting a dangerous feat that naturally elicits the question: “why”? The film even starts with that very question. The dream to climb Everest is static, physical, geological even; that I understand. The Walk, however, attempts to answer its own question with a confused philosophy and allusions to a kind of artistic dedication that it doesn’t earn. For example, Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) scoffs at joining his mentor’s circus, not deigning to wire-walk for an audience, but later he’s embarrassed by an early failure and frets over the costume he’ll wear 110 stories above the street. Frankly, I don’t need to be told “why” to go along with a dream this extraordinary and singular—I just need to believe in the portrayal of the man. But the film doesn’t convince me of Petit’s “art,” nor does it provide him with compelling psychological shading. (His accomplices, especially his poor girlfriend, have even less personality, defined entirely by their role in Petit’s “coup.”)
I also seem to differ with most audiences who patiently wade through the beginning of the film and find the climactic walk elating. For me, it was the preparation for the walk atop the World Trade Center that was the most thrilling. There’s a subconscious physical reaction, a tightening in the gut, to watching these men cling to the side of the building that is undeniably potent.
As soon as Petit steps into the void, however, the spell was broken for me, and the film’s use of 3D is the biggest culprit. Of course, The Walk was shot in 3D for precisely this moment, to make the figure pop against the landscape and heighten his isolation in midair, but it accomplishes exactly the opposite effect. It foreshortens the elements in the frame, cheapening their visual impact, a problem Everest also shares. Other than perhaps Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I haven’t seen a 3D film that uses the technique to add a realistic depth to the image; instead, 3D creates an ugly collage effect, as if each discrete elements in the shot were haphazardly pasted on top of each other.
Finally, there’s a subtle tragedy to The Walk in the wake of 9/11, an obvious fact that was apparent the whole time but made my heart skip a beat when it finally bubbled into my consciousness. In the face of that immeasurable terror and sadness, perhaps an uncritical celebration of the sublime, imperfect though it may be, is precisely what we need.