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NYFF: Voilà... "The Walk"

Nathaniel reporting from NYFF 53 though this movie is now in IMAX theaters and next week wide for all y'all. This piece was original published in a shorter version in my column @ Towleroad

The Walk  begins in mid air with a jaunty circus-like score from composer Alan Silvestri accompanying the clouds. Our birds-eye view is quickly revealed as just above Manhattan, perched on no less a tourist icon than the Statue of Liberty. That we’re looking at something purely presentational is abundantly clear as crinkly-eyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his first appearance, smiling and speaking directly to the camera. And he speaks with a cartoon French accent to boot. (To be fair to JGL, many real French people sound like cartoon people when they speak English. This is meant as a compliment because who doesn’t love cartoons and/or French accents?). What’s more, at least to these only super-marginally trained ears (I watch a lot of French movies and I took French in high school –that’s the extent of it!) JGL’s actual French sounds impeccable in his subtitled scenes with French co-stars.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's adorableness can be so distracting? Is that why filmmakers keep trying to make him look not so much like Joseph Gordon-Levitt? We already know he can sing / dance / act and in this film he juggles and wirewalks and speaks fluent French. Is there anything he can’t do? 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s adorableness can be so distracting! Let’s get back on topic...

Philippe Petit demonstrates his mad plan for his girlfriend... with props!

  In the opening scene The Walk announces itself as something entirely removed from our mundane reality… that’s an unexpected choice considering that we’re at the kick off of Fall Movie Season and we’ve firmly entered the realm of “Based on a True Story”. It's also something of a shocker for the NYFF which nearly always errs on the side of violent miserable sadsack men for its lineups and who was to expect such frivolity when they announced the Opening, Centerpiece, and Closing films which all sounded like "Great Men Biopics" (zzz) on paper. The fantastical “storytelling” approach is, thus, unexpected but entirely welcome. Once you acclimate, that is.

At first this ringmaster-like intro, with JGL promoting his own circus act as legendary high wire man Philippe Petit, is quite jarring. For the story of The Walk is already real-world familiar. It’s been told to both box office and Oscar winning success in the documentary Man on Wire (2008) which recounted Petit’s rise from a Parisian wire walker to a man who made headlines all over the world with his illegal stealth magic trick: suspending a steel wire between the newly erected Twin Towers (just before they opened to the public) and walking back and forth across them.

The Walk is not what you might expect from a recounting of this famous happening. Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, FlightWhat Lies Beneath) treats the story more like a tall tale or adventure film than a docudrama from its first frames to its last. The usual dramatic intensity and psychological profiling of true stories is shooed away at every opportunity to focus on a colorful comic dash through Petit’s life to collect his funny band of “accomplices” before they head to NYC to achieve the impossible. About the only thing the movie makes room for as a result is fun surface-level pleasures like the sometimes amusing ensemble rapport: Frenchmen Clément Sibony and César Domboy impress as does the ever reliable James Badge Dale (as a French speaking New Yorker) and funnyman Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation).



Charlotte le Bon is less lucky saddled with the boring "supportive girlfriend" role. If you have any idea what Ben Kingsley is doing as Papa Rudy, e-mail me and explain it. That man is hit and miss like no one else, right? 

The Walk also has relavitely engaging broad physical scenes of “danger” in the rehearsals and trial runs. Except not really because Petit will obviously live to walk between the Towers! The point is this: none of this runs very deep.

When The Walk kicked off the New York Film Festival last weeked (on the way to its right-now IMAX release — the film opens in normal theaters in one week but if you’re interested at all, IMAX is the way to go) reports of people vomiting in the rest room from dizziness trickled out onto social media. I had assumed that its eye-catching imagery was too green-screen movie-magic fake to really affect people beyond turning them wide eyed like children but I assumed wrong. (I am not without phobias, but fear of heights isn’t remotely one of them.) Viewers with vertigo might only risk this (if at all) in 2D in normal theaters… unless your therapist is really stressing exposure therapy in which case, obey.

While Man on Wire, a better if far less visceral film, was forced to show you Philippe Petit’s 1970s walk across the Twin Towers through still photography, archival news reports, and talking head memories, Zemeckis is an old fashioned movie magician. He’s after recreation by way of fantasy. He’s always been a “spectacle” director, obsessed with technical challenges (see Death Becomes Her’s twisted divas or Forrest Gump‘s archival cameos, and so on…) so he clearly relishes the finale most of all. Actually "finale" is the wrong word --  the towers walk is more like the final third of the movie than a standard climax. This long multi-chaptered scene is where all the passion goes and it’s by far the grandest part of an otherwise just okay movie. Zemeckis’s joy at staging the event is infectious and he takes the 3D IMAX cameras out there in mid air to show you the historic walk in all its dizzying, windy, high-altitude, and bloody footed insanity.

You know that feeling when you remove 3D glasses to rub your eyes for a second and, the spell suddenly broken, you feel entirely silly for both wearing stupid ugly movie glasses and glancing at a boozy colorful double image without them? That’s the feeling of The Walk. By the time the credits rolled, I realized I had not been watching a true story drama but two semi-adorable fantasy films fused into one.

One of them is a silly children’s film about circus performers and that feeling you get when you first fall in love with the magical skycrapers of the big city. The other is a nostalgic fable for weary adults about a more innocent time in America’s history via the recreation of a long gone New York skyline. They’re both just tricks, but like any worthy circus act, they work their dumb magic beautifully. The “oohs” and “aahs” and chills from the crowd arrive right on schedule and if you miss the World Trade Center at all, that eye rubbing beneath your glasses might just be from tears.

Grade: B+ ish if you are a) in the right mood, b) accept that it's for children, and c) see it in IMAX 3D. C+ ish otherwise. 
Oscar Chances: Not impossible but unlikely outside of techs. It has a decent shot at Score and Visual Effects nominations if it moves them. 

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Reader Comments (8)

What were your thoughts on the motion sickness claims? I am genuinely petrified to see this movie for that reason.

September 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I didn't want to ask in the Damon thread, so I'll ask here (because... 3D!)... is it necessary to see The Martian in 3D? I trust your judgment!

September 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Suzanne: I keep an eye on Mat Buck (one of the Channel Awesome guys) on twitter. I generally trust him and, after he saw it, he said the 3-D was unnecessary and to just save your money and see it in 2-D.

October 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Suzanne -- yeah, the 3D in The Martian is unnecessary. with The Walk though i don't see any point in seeing it in 2D because it seems designed only to be a 3D IMAX type of thing.

October 3, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I really enjoyed THE WALK, and I admit that I was one of those who felt so queasy during the World Trade Center scene that I actually had to walk out of the theater to temporarily catch my breath. But I also realize that this would not have been nearly as enjoyable and amazing in 2D. This movie was designed for IMAX 3D.

Isn't Gordon-Levitt amazing, by the way? Maybe it's not a full in-depth characterization, but he's super fun to watch and a talented entertainer.

October 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

The 3D in The Martian is "unnecessary" (Dial M for Murder unnecessary) but gorgeous.

October 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Thanks, everyone!

October 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Loved your analogy to taking off the 3D glasses and feeling suddenly dopey.

October 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

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