Movie Review: “The Walk” (Robert Zemeckis, USA 2015)

A Frenchman stands on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the twin towers of the World Trade Center behind him, and says, “Forever.” It’s all rather obvious CGI and doesn’t look very good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is trying his best to keep us interested and the background has just enough movement that it looks “alive,” though it’s also so obviously CGI that the idea of its reality is laughable.

Everything you need to know about The Walk is in that image. It’s a political allegory about immigration that could easily bear the subtitle “why Donald Trump is wrong.” It’s obvious to the point of being a bit forced and there are ways in which it seems to be on the right track, but its execution is quite simply lacking, leaving behind a film that isn’t so much bad as it is disappointing.

In 1974, Philippe Petit, a French high wire artist, secretly placed a high wire between the recently-opened twin towers of the World Trade Center and proceeded to perform on the wire, without permission, for 45 minutes. Thirty-four years later, a documentary about the act, Man on a Wire (James Marsh, UK/USA 2008), sparked renewed interest in the stunt, and I will be honest that I had no interest in it then or now. I was willing to go because of Gordon-Levitt, whose taste in projects has been as reliable as any director outside of Rian Johnson in the last decade, but I really didn’t know what Zemeckis could be doing other than telling a story that for some reason that eludes me holds interest to many people.

But Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne did something smart that most people would not think to do: they used the story as a vehicle to tell us something that the story itself isn’t about. They made an allegory. Fundamentally, this is a film about immigration. This is a film that says that immigration leads to a melding of cultures that makes everyone better and brings them together.

The shot of a Frenchman standing on the statue that the French gave to the United States to welcome immigrants in front of not just any tall buildings, but the Twin Towers, is a clear enough point on its own, but the film doesn’t stop there. Before Petit’s walk, we hear that the towers are hated throughout the city and we get the idea that the city itself is fractured. After, we are told directly that the city has come to accept the towers as a result of his walk. When we see Petit working in France, the score is French-language versions of American music of the time, referencing a kind of cultural emigration that the United States has engaged in without any concern throughout much of its history. There is constant discussion of language and how people who speak both languages are present in both countries.

The problem is that the film doesn’t do anything visual to advance its point. It’s full of awful CGI and those silly “oh no it’s coming at us!” 3D shots and matte paintings. There’s so little that’s real in the film that it’s easy to think that Zemeckis and Dariusz Wolski made an animated film more than a live-action work. It all looks very, very blue (though the colors are brighter in some scenes in France, particularly when Petit is discovering the wire that he so loves) and cold. And none of that adds anything to the point.

There is one other problem, though it’s hardly an objective one: I was bored through most of the film. I really wanted it to end about 40 minutes before it did. Your mileage may vary on that point, but I really did find it boring.

Gordon-Levitt’s accent had a few bad moments but otherwise he was just as excellent as he usually is. He didn’t have much to show–really just a mixture of exuberance and arrogance–but he did everything Zemeckis asked of him as well as anyone could. Charlotte Le Bon had to do a bit more, and had to do it subtly, and she was also capable. Ben Kingsley returns to his general role of grumpy old artist dude and is generally fine, though sometimes his grouchiness felt so fake that when he reveals himself to be a more caring person than he has otherwise admitted it falls a bit flat. (It’s also predictable from scripting, but Kingsley could have made it work better.)

The Walk was surprising in that I didn’t expect a political allegory out of its story. It was surprising in that Robert Zemeckis’s checkered career has not included things with even attempted depth, let alone having some success at it. It was surprising in that Zemeckis, long one of the more technologically-adept directors in Hollywood, made something that looked so silly and cartoonish. However, I’m not sure it was any more successful than I would have guessed. It was rather dull and it didn’t look good, leaving Gordon-Levitt trying to carry a film that wants to be deeper than it is. It wasn’t a waste of time, but it just didn’t reach the heights Zemeckis seemed to have planned.

Notes

  • Without looking, name a Zemeckis film since Forrest Gump (USA 1994). Harder to do than you would think, isn’t it? This is the ninth film he’s made since then and really only Cast Away (USA 2000) made any kind of ripple in the public consciousness, and even that ripple was focused on Tom Hanks.
  • I don’t care enough to look up the reality of it, but why didn’t he even bother to ask for permission to do the high wire act? It’s possible that they would have seen it as a good promotion for the WTC.
  • They put up signs that say not to mess with his concentration or touch the wire, but the helicopter flying overhead doesn’t affect Petit at all? That seems ridiculous. Maybe if I watched the documentary I would find out that a helicopter really did fly overhead, but that seems like it would almost definitely kill him.
  • I’m also incredulous about Petit needing to tell the police to release the tension instead of just cutting the wire that’s inches away from them. Maybe they’re not used to seeing something like that, but it seems intuitive to me that you wouldn’t want just to cut it.
  • Petit comes across as a total dick. I was rooting for Annie to leave him before they even came to the US.
  • I’m just curious why Zemeckis made this decision: time passes behind Petit while he’s describing what happened from the Statue of Liberty. It just seemed odd enough that I kept wondering why he did that.
  • It was kind of interesting that the film is structured like a heist movie. And yet, where heist movies are so often fun, this one just felt so long.
  • No, I did not watch it in 3D. I still hate 3D.
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