There is a lot about "The Walk", the new film from director Robert Zemeckis, that shouldn't really work. And maybe it doesn't. It sure doesn't seem to for much of the film. But once 'The Walk' happens, all of those complaints, misgivings, doubts quickly fall away, cascading down 110 stories.
Based on the life of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman obsessed with tightrope walking and theatricality, "The Walk" concentrates on Petit's plans and execution of his dream to walk between the north and south towers of the newly built World Trade Center in 1974 New York.
If this sounds familiar, you probably saw the highly acclaimed documentary "Man on Wire" released a few years ago. Featuring archival footage and interviews with Petit and some of his cohorts, "Man on Wire" is perhaps most effective at painting a portrait of the aerialist's obsession. It is a great documentary and should not be missed.
It seems like every other film director Robert Zemeckis does is geared towards advancing or creating a new technique for his toolbox. Then, he sometimes uses that new tool and makes an interesting new film. Zemeckis has been playing with stop-motion capture technology for a while ("The Polar Express" - which was good - and "A Christmas Carol" - which was much better, advancing the technology used in the first film) so it would seem he is now turning his attention to 3-D. Basically, Zemeckis seems to have a process. Create a film to test new technology then create a second film to use that new technique in a better way. Then, he moves on to a new idea.
Why create a fictionalized version of a story we have already seen? There are a number of reasons. Many people are more likely to see a big-budget studio release than a small, independently produced documentary, so there probably are a lot of people who will see "The Walk" who haven't seen "Man on Wire". Adding some biggish-name Hollywood actors will help to draw more people to this story. And the story is a terrific and unusual way for Zemeckis to play with 3-D technology and use it to both advance the technology and to tell the story in a way that makes sense.
When 3-D first appeared in theaters in the 50s, as a way of fighting the threat of television, filmmakers like Andre de Toth and Hitchcock experimented with the medium by creating stories designed to throw things at the audience (ping pong balls, knives, hands) to give them a feeling of being in the story. But the technique was too gimmicky and didn't last. The medium has been resurrected a few times, without much success. But the release of James Cameron's "Avatar" changed that forever. Now, it seems like every animated and every action/superhero film is released in 3-D. The new renaissance may already be waning - many new releases share one theater for both 3-D and regular screenings of the same film, flip-flopping with each showtime. And most live-action 3-D films are retrofitted in post, to create a 3-D print. These movies are usually not the greatest use of 3-D, but the studios continue with this, because they can charge a premium for the 3-D glasses and boost the film's revenue.
So when someone like Zemeckis decides they want to create a 3-D experience like "The Walk", you know most of the film is designed to be an experience that will grab you and make you remember it. It is a film that is meant to be seen in 3-D. In fact, if you can see it in IMAX 3-D, all the better.
But before we get to the actual 3-D elements of "The Walk", let's talk about everything leading up to that point.
Going in, you probably know what will happen during the climax of the film. Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will walk a tightrope between the Twin Towers. This is why Zemeckis wants to make this film and why we should see the film, because this is the thing the documentary couldn't show us in such amazing detail because they didn't have unlimited cameras recording every detail.
But first, we have to get to that point.
And so much of the back story shouldn't work, parts of it don't work, and parts of it are annoying.
We meet Petit as he sits on another high landmark in New York City. He narrates the story, telling us about everything he is thinking. The lyrical, fanciful nature of this narrative is highlighted because of where Zemeckis places him and because he has Petit act as the narrator to his own story. Initially, this seems strange - you might expect the filmmaker to try to make everything seem hyperrealistic, to make The Walk all the more real and interesting. And to have Gordon-Levitt's Chevalier-esque accent telling the story, from a high vantage point, does nothing to help the story seem real and true. But this is exactly in keeping with the subject of the story. Petit seems to live in a fairy-tale bubble looking at everything through his childlike enthusiasm. He wants to walk a tightrope on top of Notre Dame? Why not. Then, when he first hears about the new skyscrapers New York, he believes they are the most beautiful creation, and the fact they are brand new, their height, everything, serves as a magnet to the French aerialist.
As he tells his story, we meet the other people in his life. Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a Czech aerialist, takes Philippe under his wing and gives him guidance and advice throughout his career. Initially, he pleads with Philippe to get this crazy idea out of his head, but he quickly realizes that is impossible. Once Philippe sets his mind on something, he never lets it go. His girlfriend, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, "The Hundred Foot Journey") is always at his side, ready and willing to support any crazy idea he comes up with. Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony, "The Hundred Foot Journey") is his most faithful friend, ready and eager to help Philippe with any dream. And they recruit Jeff (Cesar Domboy), who is eager to help, but afraid of heights. Once they work through every angle of the plan, they travel to New York, to put the details into motion. There, they meet JP (James Badge Dale, "Flight", "The Lone Ranger"), a shop owner who happens to be French and wants to help and Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine, TV's "Crossing Jordan") who is a tenant in one of the towers and is all too willing to help.
This part of the film goes on forever and it becomes a little difficult to listen to Gordon-Levitt's constant narration. He is a bit too showy and full of himself. But this is sort of the point. Petit is showy and full of himself. When you decide you are going to walk between the Twin Towers at 110 stories, you would have to be.
And a strange thing happens. Once they begin to move their equipment into the Twin Towers, and prepare for The Walk, your anticipation begins to build. You know what is going to happen, but they run into obstacles, and have some hurdles to get over, before, you know, The Walk. This is Zemeckis telling us to get ready, something extraordinary is about to happen.
Then the time comes and Petit prepares himself for his first step on the impossibly thin wire to traverse such an expanse - so, so high up - between the towers. He sets one foot on the wire and you gasp, because you see the depth he could fall with the slightest misstep. This is the beauty of a director like Zemeckis - someone who is so invested in their craft that they want to expand the very vocabulary of the art, and the number of people who are willing and able to do this is small - Guillermo del Toro and Inarritu have done some exciting things recently, Spielberg still does this, but not as frequently - making a film like "The Walk". He uses CGI and 3-D technology to make you feel like you are stepping onto the wire with Petit. Any misstep he makes, you make. And because we have already spent so, so much time with him, listening to him chatter incessantly, we feel like we know this young, skinny, French blowhard. Every step he takes, we take.
And the entire sequence is why you go to the movies in the first place. You go to be transported - into another time, another place, another life. And let's face it - most films don't do this very well. But "The Walk" does this in spades.
Zemeckis shot the film for viewing in 3-D and it was released ten days early on IMAX and large format 3-D screens. I have been to many regular 3-D screenings and I have been to some IMAX 3-D screenings. The IMAX screen is bigger and brings out the detail, making it sharper and more defined. This helps the 3-D experience become even more pronounced and significant. In other words, Zemeckis really wants you to feel like you are walking the tightrope with Petit.
Coincidentally, the film is also a love letter to the Twin Towers. Because we see them frequently, as we watch Petit narrate the story from the Statue of Liberty, they seem real. And Petit chooses to walk between them because he thinks they are a beautiful architectural achievement - that, and their height - so this helps the story to paint a picture of how New Yorkers viewed these towers when they were first built. And much like getting to know Petit, we get to know the Towers, again, while always thinking about the horrible incidents that happened on 9/11.
Everything that shouldn't work, everything that doesn't work about this movie, helps to make "The Walk" a breathtaking film and an exciting experience.