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Every other minute of the The Walk’s 121 minute running time screams at you at the top of its lungs, through a megaphone wired into a 20,000 watt speaker system loud enough to cause mild deafness while forcing your ear physically against the speakers in question, that “the Walk” that gives the film its title is the most amazing work of art in the history of art. Sorry, Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs no longer reigns as king as the talkiest movie of the year. Stuffed wall to wall with hackneyed, overbearing, sentimental, arrogant self-aggrandizing dialogue that reminds you constantly what the movie is about, and how amazing it is that it’s about that, if you came in at any point before The Walk’s jaw-dropping final 45 minutes, where Robert Zemeckis gorgeously and thrillingly recreates Frenchman Philippe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) 1974 daredevil walk using a thin high wire between New York City’s Twin Towers, you wouldn’t have missed a thing.
To say The Walk has voiceover is the understatement of the millennium. If you’ve ever dreamt of a French-accented Joseph Gordon Levitt’s voice buzzing in your ear for two hours with all the distracting verve of an overcaffeinated bee, no film is more meant for you. The voiceover, which isn’t a voiceover so much as a bizarro-land framing device, is ceaseless. It doesn’t stop. When Petit begins his level one flirtations with his French beauty love interest (Charlotte Le Bon in a thankless role), we don’t linger in the scene to let chemistry build or their charming conversation. No. We hear the chattering blabber of his voice addressing not her but us. The Walk begins with a lofty sermon by Petit on the nature of love and life and art, his art, perched on the flame of Lady Liberty and framed with New York City in the background. It’s this framing device that intrusively pops almost every bubble The Walk gets going.
All the more miscalculated is the gross frequency we return to his senseless pontification. Every key emotional beat of the movie—such as his romantic meetings, regular meetings, his ‘origin story’, and, cripplingly and head scratchingly, the walk itself. Just when he steps onto the metallic high-wire that’s a dizzying distance from the ground, as vertigo steps in and our bellies drop, and in jaw-dropping IMAX 3D, boy, do they, Zemeckis makes the fatal error of returning to Petit’s direct address babble.
His movie has amongst the most impressive visual effects and digital mastery since 2013’s Gravity, and sadly Zemeckis doesn’t have the courage to let them speak for themselves. But they are amazing. New York City has been recreated in CGI with Levitt mostly on a green screen soundstage, and while the film never achieves the photorealism of Gravity, the effects communicate a powerful sense of reality even if it’s not completely our own. Filmed with deep-focus photography that will cause thousands of sweaty palms, the ground, the sleek walls of the Twin Towers, and crucially, Levitt in all black as Petit, are all startlingly clear within the same shot. As the camera impossibly cranes around him and nothing is left to our imagination, the deathly drop least of all, it becomes all too evident Zemeckis has committed a heist of his own—he has stolen our breath away.
Indebted to the dazzling Man on a Wire that won best documentary in 2008, The Walk is the Ocean’s 11 of high wire acrobatic movies. Man on a Wire framed Petit’s walk as a heist, and most of this movie’s running time is spent accumulating various “accomplices.” There’s the loyal photographer, the mustached inside man (who provides the team with access to the top floors of the Twin Towers), the criminal, and the cowards. Petit himself is an unabashedly unlikable leader: he rides a unicycle, juggles, mimes, and worst of all, loves to get in people’s face while doing all of the above. He puts his art on a pedestal—almost literally in the case of his wire—and his incessant narcissism and arrogance, which is part of what powers the ambiguous ethics of his walk, sometimes makes him impossible to tolerate.
During a key moment of The Walk, Petit throws a tantrum for needing to wear a v-neck instead of his preferred turtleneck. He’s annoying in all the wrong ways, and for better and worse, being kind of a childlike prick is an intentional part of his character; he apologizes to his crew for being tough company, an apology that surely extends to us. In a bit of meta-narrative, just as his “accomplices” nevertheless support him and indulge in hero-worship, Petit is meant to ultimately win us over. He’s brazen, has death-defying courage and a hard-wired determination to place aestheticism, beauty, as the highest goal of goals. The mileage may vary on how redemptive that ultimately proves to be, but the film’s final 45-minute run, the caper and the “walk,” is a joyous celebration of all things cinematic. Gorgeous images, ‘90s era sentimentality, and a swelling score bring to mind all things people mean when using the phrase movie magic. The Walk might not always keep its balance, but it still lands a mean finish.
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