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DVD Review: The Walk

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If you saw and loved James Marsh’s Academy-Award-winning documentary Man On Wire (2008), the possibility of the same story getting the Hollywood makeover in a narrative feature film most likely wasn’t all that appealing, albeit not surprising. That’s why I didn’t rush to the cinema back in autumn to see The Walk, despite the level of talent involved before and behind the camera. Yet watching it for the first time on my flat screen TV immediately filled me with regret for not finding the time to enjoy this awe-inspiring cinematic experience in IMAX 3D.

On the morning of August 7th, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit pulled off what became the most incredible con and artistic act of the century by walking the aerial space between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City. Yes, you’ve read correctly, this man walked 1,350 feet above the ground, on a 450-pound cable, using a custom-made 26-foot long, 55-pound balancing pole. His performance lasted 45 minutes and he made eight passes along the wire. He was obviously arrested for what he himself called “le coup” but all charges were dismissed in exchange for a free performance in Central Park for children. The week after his unauthorized, jaw-dropping act he turned 25.

Directed by Oscar-winning legend Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Castaway, Back To The Futuretrilogy), The Walk relies on Petit’s autobiographical book To Reach The Clouds as source material, just likeMan On Wire did, retaining the cool heist movie feel of the story from the documentary. After all, Petit’s act was indeed a crime, albeit an artistic one that meant no harm, except potentially to the artist himself. But Zemeckis’ film also focuses a lot on this experience as an act of friendship, the key component to Petit’s success.

The script (by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne) predictably uses voiceover to frame the story but this isn’t your average biopic, it’s the chronicle of an amazing adventure and a specific moment in the real life of a man with a seemingly impossible dream. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Looper, The Dark Knight Rises) plays Petit with irresistible charm, perfectly capturing the man’s dreamer-like quality, enthusiasm and whimsy. Some have lamented his haircut and his French accent but the physical work together with the vocal one are rather on point. The thespian learned French for the role and speaks it fluently when required, however his speaking English for most of the film is not justified by the underlined notion that it’s an American film. The protagonist repeatedly solicits everyone he interacts with to speak English as he needs to practice for when he goes to New York to enact the coup.

Since the film’s opening, Gordon-Levitt as Petit is telling his story directly to the audience, from the top of the Statue Of Liberty, breaking the fourth wall. He often reappears in that narrator role and though maybe the film would’ve worked fine without it, the choice is understandable, adding a fairy tale vibe, as the story in the end is magical and breathtaking. So we learn about Petit’s obsession with wire walking since his childhood when he used to sneak into circus shows, his friendship with artistic mentor Papa Rudy (an always delightful Sir Ben Kingsley) and his father kicking him out of the house for lack of income. The young Petit in fact would not listen to his old man and pursue a proper career so he leaves his native village behind and moves to Paris where he soon establishes himself as a street artist.

On his first day there he meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), another street performer he accidentally steals the audience from and what starts as a quarrel between the two winds up in a beautiful friendship with inevitably added romance. When Petit learns about the Twin Towers being close to completion and conceives the absurd plan of walking on a wire rigged between the two buildings, he organizes a test walk that albeit less daunting is still insane. With the help of Annie and a new friend, photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), he succeeds at walking the distance between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral and gets arrested afterwards, starting to build his fame.

As Petit’s planning and training continue, Jean-Louis introduces him to his friend Jeff (César Domboy), who wants to help them with the con despite his fear of heights. When the gang flies to New York and Petit has his first impact with the towers in person, he feels discouraged not just for the performance but most importantly for how to pull off the con in order to install the gear. In our current times of ultra security paranoia and knowing the grim destiny of the World Trade Center, it’s rather crazy to watch the film and imagine how this man actually managed to succeed, something unthinkable in today’s climate. Yet, what the film makes clear is how the secret ingredient to Petit’s success were his friends. With his French gang and new “accomplices” found on American soil, Petit will obviously go through with it as history has recorded. Yet, this doesn’t make for a less heart-pounding spectacle with palpable tension form start to finish. The filmmakers and cast’ bravura is in fact not that of portraying something we already know the outcome of but that of brilliantly conveying the emotions at stake.

When interviewed about the reasons behind the coupe Petit replies that there’s no why and that he just felt he had to do it. He couldn’t have answered any better as the philosophical implications behind his crazy performance dig deep into humanity’s essence. Gordon-Levitt confirms to be one of his generation’s best actors as he convincingly portrays the legendary figure (who personally trained the thespian to walk on a wire). The rest of the cast is marvelous too at capturing their friendly devotion to this man’s cause, knowing they could never do something like that and yet feeling like they’re doing it a bit, given how each of them provides pivotal support to make the mission a success. Zemeckis directs with his veteran confidence and crafts a family-friendly, feel-good movie entertains, moves and inspires without ever feeling cheesy or calculated.

4-out-of-5

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