“The Walk” will likely go down as one of my most memorable movie-going experiences. I’ve sat in countless theaters, and watched untold movies, but when I tell my grandchildren what going to the movies used to be like, I’m going to describe the two hours I spent in a theater watching “The Walk.”
Never before have I seen a film so perfectly encapsulate the joy and the wonder of cinema. “The Walk” is an uplifting celebration of life, a love letter to the Twin Towers, and a technical marvel. At a time when movies have largely become dark and cynical, the screenplay for “The Walk” seems to have gushed out of the fingers of the writers on a wave of optimism. And at a time when moviemakers seem content to hurl a maelstrom of three-dimensional superheroes at audiences, “The Walk” offers the smartest and the best use of 3D of any film I’ve seen.
Perhaps you’re skeptical because I’m using only superlatives to describe “The Walk.” Then see it, in 3D on an IMAX screen, and tell me I’m wrong.
“The Walk” is based on the true story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on Aug. 7, 1974. Starring as Petit is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who trained with Petit himself prior to filming. Although the actor had no high-wire experience, by the end of an intense eight-day workshop, Gordon-Levitt was able to walk on a wire alone. (Alas, he did not master Petit’s French accent.)
“The Walk” was co-written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has a history of not only making great movies (“Back to the Future,” “Forest Gump,” “Cast Away”) but also of pushing the envelope of film technology so he can better tell the stories he wants to tell (“The Polar Express,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Death Becomes Her”).
“The Walk” follows Petit from his days as a street performer through the end of his famous stroll 110 stories above terra firma. Zemeckis paints a portrait of a young man who had a knack for magic and juggling but dreamed of doing bigger things. After one of his performances, Petit looks up at the twin spires of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and mentally draws a line between them. Zemeckis uses the relatively small scale of the cathedral to not only foreshadow Petit’s wire walk between the Twin Towers but to also show how much Petit’s ambitions grew once he saw a photo of the World Trade Center in a magazine. Petit was (and perhaps still is) a man of unbounded dreams.
He was also a stubborn sonofagun. Against considerable odds (his meager income, the technical challenges involved, and the illegal nature of the stunt), he assembles a team to help him pull off what he calls “the artistic crime of the 20th century.” He also falls in love with a young lady named Annie.
Zemeckis uses these scenes to paint a detailed portrait of Petit, who was driven to the point of being difficult. But he also uses the thrill of pursuing a grand dream and Petit’s affair with Annie to soften the mood, giving “The Walk” the feel of a cheerful old movie. In one scene that made me smile, Petit and Annie are walking past a sidewalk cafe, with Annie resisting Petit’s advances. When it begins to rain, Petit grabs one of the huge table umbrellas from the cafe to protect them from the downpour. She gives in to his advances and kisses him as water drips off the edge of their massive covering. I can’t remember the last time a movie so perfectly captured the charm and innocence of classic cinema.
Nor can I remember seeing any film that made me squirm and nearly step outside the theater to gather my bearings, as this one did. The high-wire scenes are almost unbearably tense, with Zemeckis using each of Petit’s eight crossings and his death-defying stunts to increase the viewer’s apprehension. Like “Titanic,” we know how “The Walk” ends, but my stomach was still in my throat as I watched.
Zemeckis skillfully uses every tool at his disposal to pull viewers into the film. In one shot, the vast space around Petit makes it seem as though he’s walking effortlessly across air, then the next shot will show Petit poised 1,300 feet above the ground. The wire wobbles, the wooden supports splinter, Petit’s foot starts to bleed, the wind picks up speed, police officers shout from both rooftops, and Petit refuses to dismount, instead turning 180 degrees to walk back across the wire, and lying down at the halfway point and looking at the sky.
Really, these words fail to capture the brilliance of the film’s climactic scene. I wish I could take each one of you to the theater, sit with you as you watch the movie, and then talk with you about it afterward. But all I can do is urge you to see it. Like me, perhaps it will remind you of what you love about going to the movies.
Five stars out of five. Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, nudity, language, drug references, and smoking.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.