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The Walk Movie Review

The Walk: Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD combo pack cover art
The Walk is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray 3D.

The Walk (2015) movie poster The Walk

Theatrical Release: September 30, 2015 / Running Time: 122 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Robert Zemeckis / Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne (screenplay); Philippe Petit (book To Reach the Clouds)

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Philippe Petit), Ben Kingsley (Papa Rudy), Charlotte Le Bon (Annie Allix), James Badge Dale (Jean-Pierre/J.P.), Cl้ment Sibony (Jean-Louis), C้sar Domboy (Jeff/Jean-Francois), Benedict Samuel (David), Ben Schwartz (Albert), Steve Valentine (Barry Greenhouse)

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With films like Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis has told some of cinema's most enduring, iconic, and moving stories. What Zemeckis has never before done is tell a true story.
He does that in The Walk, bringing to the screen in IMAX 3D no less an incident you may well have learned about from Man on Wire, 2008's Academy Award winner for Best Documentary.

Familiarity with the subject -- Philippe Petit's daring and illegal 1974 tightrope walk between the tops of the Twin Towers -- might seem an obstacle to Zemeckis' often visceral and exciting brand of filmmaking. It's not, though, because this is one of those "too good to be true" tales perfectly suited for a narrative feature film and one helmed by a maestro of visual effects and other technical facets.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt adopts an unfashionable hairdo and a French accent to play Petit, who describes his fascination with the high wire beginning on a circus visit at age 8. Philippe ties some ropes between two trees, eventually getting down to just a single one that he can comfortably sashay across. Though this early sequence feels like it could be the start of a standard issue biopic, The Walk quickly shakes that feeling.

"The Walk" stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who dreams of performing a tightrope stunt atop the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.

Philippe, narrating his story from atop the Statue of Liberty with the World Trade Center in glorious view behind him, tells of his success as a silent Paris street performer, his act of juggling, unicycling, and the like attracting enthusiastic crowds. Some of those crowds are taken from Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon of The Hundred-Foot Journey), a singer who becomes Philippe's first accomplice and first to know of his dream to walk on a wire suspended between the tops of the world's biggest buildings, those two 110-story skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan.

Mentored by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the multilingual patriarch of a family of tightrope walkers, Philippe finds further accomplices in a photographer (Cl้ment Sibony), an electronics store owner (James Badge Dale, resuming the scene-stealer duties he briefly held in Zemeckis' Flight), a life insurance salesman who works high in one of the towers (Steve Valentine), and a couple of iffy allies ("Parks & Rec"'s Ben Schwartz and, comic relief, Benedict Samuel).

Despite the title, the movie spends a lot of time on the build-up to the big walk. Philippe and his supporters make friends, research the towers, and hatch an elaborate plan that hinges on getting a lot of supplies all the way to the roof of one of the towers.

Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) uses a string and two bottles of wine to demonstrate his plans for "The Coup" to his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon).

Though the outcome isn't in doubt if you've seen Man on Wire or recognize what makes for the kind of movie that would be released to thousands of theaters, The Walk still puts you on edge and maintains a tight grip. The prospect of moving 140 feet across a 2"-thick metal wire over 1,300 feet in the air is breathtaking and terrifying in theory.
You can bet that Zemeckis and his seasoned crew, from long-time collaborators (editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll) to new ones (Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski), do everything in their powers to make that experience palpable and cinematic.

Gladly, the team keeps this from being pure spectacle or a gimmick that lives and dies with your ability to see this on a giant or slightly larger IMAX screen in 3D (premium formats that will be the film's exclusive home for nine days). The screenplay, which Zemeckis wrote with his mocap technician Christopher Browne, is full of humanity. It also maintains an appropriate amount of humor that befits both its hero and the charismatic actor portraying him. The Walk has the feel of a heist movie, which serves it well. It doesn't push the period setting too hard (a use and reprise of Sly & The Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" seem a touch on the nose), but it does a good job of recreating the not so distant past (one prominent Sony logo notwithstanding) with tactful costuming and facial hair plus a well-assembled international cast bigger on talent than fame.

The film even finds the right note on which to end, neither ignoring nor exploiting the specter of 9/11 that obviously hangs over the entirety. This probably could have been made in the 1970s with matte paintings and Irwin Allen producing, but you're glad it's instead coming now, when filmmakers are able to make it all look entirely real and these unforgettable buildings can be seen and appreciated again with the dramatic and historic weight they will forever hold.

Gordon-Levitt's adult career has been so productive that it's easy to forget he is one of the rare actors to make it from child stardom. His leading man powers are on full display as he performs a more extreme characterization than you might expect for the wide release Hollywood version of this tale. Zemeckis has always done a spectacular job of hanging on to artistic credibility while making movies for the popcorn-eating masses of the multiplexes. This one is no exception. It's a dynamite piece of entertainment that also happens to be fulfilling, enriching, and striking as art.

Regardless of how well or poorly it does with audiences (and I suspect it extends the director's tradition of crowdpleasing), the film might not have major awards prospects beyond technical categories (the score by Alan Silvestri, a mix of whimsy and awe, seems especially worthy of recognition), though you could easily see Gordon-Levitt competing for the Golden Globes' Best Actor in a Drama award.

The Walk's PG rating is a bit surprising and puzzling. The MPAA has largely reserved that second-tamest label for most new animated films. The Walk earns it even with some language, a little bit of nudity, and a drug reference. (Interestingly, the documentary received a PG-13 for some of those same elements.) This is not a family film, but it's one that most kids should be okay watching. To compare it to past fall releases, it's more like Life of Pi than Hugo (despite Kingsley playing another Papa in France), though it will not dominate the Oscars' technical categories like those fellow auteur-steered 3D productions did.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Everest • Black Mass • Pawn Sacrifice • Sicario • The Martian • The Intern
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Premium Rush • The Dark Knight Rises • Looper • The Lookout
Charlotte Le Bon: The Hundred-Foot Journey | Ben Kingsley: Hugo • Iron Man 3
Directed by Robert Zemeckis: Flight • Forrest Gump • Beowulf • A Christmas Carol • Used Cars • Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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Reviewed September 30, 2015.

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