For roughly twenty minutes after seeing The Walk in IMAX 3D, my breathing was irregular. My fear of falling (not heights) had been toyed with too many times over the course of the final act of the film. I could feel the doubts in Philippe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) head, but was able to recognize when I should be scared and when I should be smiling. Even in a vanilla 2D screening, I can still safely say that The Walk is an enjoyable experience – though without IMAX 3D, it’s less of a spectacle.
The first thing to get out of the way is that The Walk is a love story. There are so many ways that comes through, but its primary focus is on the love between Petit and the Twin Towers. The film even ends with a fade-to-black on a shot of the Twin Towers. It’s still difficult to see them and not think of September 11th, but the film does a good job at avoiding direct reference to it while creating a feeling of sadness knowing that this love between the Towers and Petit does have an expiration date. This is probably one of the more powerful 9/11 films that I have seen because it doesn’t highlight the tragedy, but implies it through highlighting the joys.
There are few people that could convince you of a love story between a building and a man than Robert Zemeckis. I mean, this is the guy who made a volleyball into a man’s best friend. Philippe Petit is also the best person to center this relationship around because his dangerous walk on a high-wire between the two towers was momentous and also his crowning achievement. The Walk turns Petit’s relationship with the towers into a man who has found his soulmate, and the only one who can make him realize his full potential.
Most of The Walk takes place setting up the big moment when he walks across the towers, but that doesn’t mean the film lacks weight. Framed by Petit talking to the audience over narration, the film follows him as he learns to master the high-wire, finds support in people, and eventually heads to New York from France for his big act. Gordon-Levitt’s french accent is initially irritating but once he is actually speaking french and then moves back and forth between the two languages, he is magnetic. His performance is so charming and filled with conviction that it carries the whimsical nature of the film to greater heights.
Whimsical is really the best word to describe The Walk, because it never stops feeling light and fun despite moments of emotional depth. The first twenty or so minutes of the film is filled with so much nostalgic filmmaking that its hard not to have a smile on your face as Petit performs Buster Keaton-like antics. Even the final act of Petit walking on the high-wire between the towers contains that same lighthearted performance as the beginning of the film.
The Walk has its problems, though. In the case of the final act, its length feels contrived, though it does work in the favor of character building and has a rather inspirational message behind it – no one can make you fail, except you. In the context of the movie, that failure is represented by falling off the high-wire, but the reasoning behind Petit ever possibly falling is kind of genius, even if it seems slightly implausible at times.
There’s not much more to the movie though, because it essentially just sets up Petit’s passion for the high-wire act, then sets up the actual Twin Towers stunt, and then the stunt happens. It’s a fairly obvious three-act divide but Gordon-Levitt’s performance and Zemeckis’s directing makes it fun, even if it doesn’t ever get particularly dark. It’s a spectacle of a film, both in terms of what is presented and the way it is shown, but it manages to be emotionally satisfying because of Gordon-Levitt’s Petit anchoring the film.