By James Hancock September 30th, 2015
The final thirty minutes of The Walk from director Robert Zemeckis delivers that rare type of tension in film that makes one’s blood run cold all while the body begins to sweat profusely. I repeatedly had to wipe off my hands on my pants while watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt reenact Philippe Petit’s famous 1974 high-wire act between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings an incredible physicality to the role while Robert Zemeckis uses the IMAX 3D canvas to its fullest potential delivering an immersive experience that justifiably has been causing vertigo in some viewers. Everything else in the film’s 123 minute running time, however, makes The Walk the new poster child for how to dumb down an amazing true story into a generic, by-the-numbers biopic that feels as if it were written by a humorless app on my phone using outdated instructions on ‘How to Write a Hollywood Movie’ as its only point of reference. For those of you who missed it, this story has already been told once before in the fascinating documentary Man on Wire (2008), a film that tells the story of Philippe Petit in far superior fashion in spite of the fact that the director James Marsh only had still photographs to work with to bring the famous walk to life. I’m all for Zemeckis doing his best to deliver an awe-inspiring experience, but in my opinion, people interested in The Walk should just skip the first 90 minutes of the movie entirely and show up for the big finish. If they find themselves still curious about this remarkable stunt, the documentary is always available for further study.
There are few types of movies that I find more tedious than formulaic biopics that drain all life out of the story in question while shaving off all the rough edges of the characters. One of my favorite scenes in the documentary Man on Wire deals with the events immediately following Petit’s arrest after his famous walk. He spent a little time in jail before being released into the streets as Manhattan’s newest celebrity. Almost immediately Petit encountered a beautiful woman that he had never met, who dragged Petit back to her hotel to make wild, passionate love, right then and there. Was this scene in The Walk? Of course not. That would have interfered with the bland, lifeless relationship between Petit and his girlfriend Annie that Zemeckis chose to feature front and center in his movie. For a movie posing as a celebration of life, there is precious little to speak of in The Walk. The depictions of the French, and the atrocious French accents used by the majority of the cast, might make it impossible for Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Ben Kingsley ever to visit the country again for fear of being killed. The ham-fisted approach to 1970s New York is nearly as bad. As part of Petit’s artistic coup he recruits some locals to help him pull off the job, one of whom who will go down in film history as the Jar Jar Binks of stoners. The fact that Zemeckis even allows a performance as dim-witted and simple-minded as that into his film reveals to what degree Zemeckis has completely lost touch with the talent that once made him one of the most exciting directors to emerge in the 1980s. Like most people of my age, I have nothing but love for Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). But as soon as Zemeckis earned a shelf of Oscars for the nauseatingly sentimental and vastly overrated Forrest Gump (1994), Zemeckis in my opinion never made another good movie. I know I am very much in the minority with this perspective but I have a feeling The Walk will bring a few more people around to my point of view. So as I said earlier, if you want to be scared to death by some awe-inspiring special effects, I urge you to see the movie on the largest possible IMAX 3D screen you can find. But don’t be surprised when the movie you see turns out to be a case study in the cynical, erroneous thinking that goes into converting great material into something supposedly more accessible to mainstream audiences. My advice is that Zemeckis should give his audience credit for more intelligence than he clearly believes they possess.
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