To date, I have gotten sick three times while watching a movie. The first was Cloverfield — luckily, my sister was there with me and she was good enough to drive us both home after I was done puking my guts out. The second was V/H/S, such a traumatic experience of nauseating shaky-cam that it’s still my number one reason for refusing to see a found-footage horror film.
The third was Meek’s Cutoff. With God as my witness, I went into the theater perfectly healthy and I left with a cold. The film was that bad. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The point is that when I heard a motion sickness advisory for The Walk, I made a conscious decision to avoid paying any premiums. I could have bought a ticket in 3D IMAX weeks ago, and seen the movie as the filmmakers made it to be seen, but the risk just wasn’t worth it for me.
Moreover, this was a movie made by Robert Zemeckis, who’s now very far removed from his ’80s-’90s heyday. His decade-long experiment in motion-capture cinema has only aged poorly, and Flight is an overrated piece of crap about an awful human being whose development arc keeps resetting every fifteen minutes. Sorry, I know that opening plane crash is spectacular, but the rest of the film is garbage.
So, based on the motion sickness risk and the chance that the movie wouldn’t be worth the extra ticket charge, I decided to hedge my bets. That was a mistake. Because this movie is all about the presentation.
Here we have the story of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Parisian street performer who traveled to the newly-constructed World Trade Center to string a high-wire between the towers and walk across it. It bears mentioning that this really did happen in August 1974. In fact, JGL trained for this movie with the real Philippe Petit himself.
Anyway, there’s a chance that the story may sound familiar. Possibly because it was the subject of Man on Wire, a fantastic documentary that won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Now, it’s been a few years since I last saw that movie, but I distinctly remember that it did a fantastic job of documenting this crazy, elaborate stunt. Even better, it was non-fiction. Everything in Wire really happened, and we were hearing about it from the people who were really there.
By comparison, Walk opens with JGL talking with a French accent directly into the camera. We hear his narration all throughout the film, and we often see him talking directly into the camera while standing on Lady Liberty’s torch, with the 1970s New York City skyline bluescreened in behind him. Which means that from start to finish (and I do mean literally from the very first frame to the very last) there’s an overt kind of cinematic artifice covering this depiction of a true story. It muddies the waters, practically begging the audience to question every crazy thing they see and ask how much of it really happened. Which I’m sure was not something the filmmakers had intended.
So why would anyone see this movie — much less make this movie — when we already have a universally acclaimed documentary to tell us a story so much crazier than any fiction? Well, because Zemeckis and his Hollywood magic can do something that no documentary ever could: Put us into Petit’s headspace.
The narration, CGI, color mixing, sound mixing, 3D effects, and JGL’s performance… Positively everything in this movie is very specifically geared toward showing us the world as Petit sees it. And the end result is electrifying. Our main character is so charismatic, so energetic, so comical, and so much fun to be around that it’s easy to get swept up in his mania. Not only does it make for a compelling lead character, and not only are we lead to understand why others would agree to be part of his plan, but it gives the movie its stakes — we’re in Petit’s head, and Petit is obsessed with performing the greatest high-wire stunt in history, ergo we want to see him succeed at getting it done.
And of course, there’s also the fact that the walk itself is a mesmerizing work of cinema. It was impressive enough in 2D, but I get the sense that seeing it in 3D IMAX would be something just short of a life-changing experience. Of course, nobody but Philippe Petit himself could say whether it accurately simulated being up there on the wire, but it was sure as hell enough to fool me.
What’s also interesting is that the film uses the scheme to make some implicit statements about art itself. There are quite a few times in which Petit and his WTC high-wire are stripped down to the level of a mad artist who wants to create something new and beautiful. Something that no one else would have the courage or creativity to bring into this world. Moreover, the WTC was only a couple of big ugly office buildings dominating the NYC skyline. Just as passion and creativity brighten up this otherwise soulless world, maybe this high-wire could bring a new spirit to those soulless towers.
In fact, the movie is very clear to point out the famously jaded nature of New Yorkers. All throughout the picture, we see New York natives keeping their heads down, going with the flow, brushing off anything slightly unusual, and getting back to the mundane drudgery of their lives. Yet they’re living in one of the world’s greatest cities, in the shadow of the largest architectural wonder ever built by human hands up to that point. Maybe it just took a maniacal daredevil and his crazy little buddies to remind them of that.
Speaking of which, I was sadly underwhelmed by the supporting cast. Ben Kingsley is underutilized, Cesar Domboy and Benedict Samuel are stuck playing terrible comic relief characters, and everyone else is a non-entity not even worth mentioning. The female lead is also disappointingly flat, though at least Charlotte Le Bon is charming enough to make it work.
All told, there’s really nothing wrong with The Walk except that we already have Man on Wire. We don’t need Hollywood to tell us what happened, because the people who were actually there told us all about it just seven years ago. As it is, The Walk serves as a fine companion piece to Man on Wire. The documentary does a better job of telling us what happened, but the blockbuster does a better job of putting us there with Petit on that wire, and making the case for why it matters that he was up there at all.
Based on which of those approaches you prefer, I absolutely recommend one film or the other. Preferably both. And when it comes to The Walk, don’t even bother at all if you can’t or won’t spring for the premiums.