Dueling Critics: The Walk

04:00 October 13, 2015
By: David Vicari, Fritz Esker

Fritz: One of the hardest things for a critic to describe is how a movie affects you emotionally or viscerally. It's part of what makes the moviegoing experience so subjective. But in the case of Robert Zemeckis' new film The Walk, about the real-life exploits of Philippe Petit, a man who walked a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in the early 1970s, the finale is so immersive, it's actually not hard to describe our reactions to it. How were you feeling during the final half-hour when Petit makes his walk? 


David: Well, I am afraid of heights and the movie gave me a vivid feeling of being up high. I was gripping the arms of the theater chair and a tingling sensation was periodically going through my stomach. It was that feeling you get on a fast-moving amusement park ride except not quite as intense. Now, I can give or take 3D, but and I think you agree The Walk should be seen in IMAX 3D to get the full effect. How did the hair-raising finale affect you? 


Fritz: Yes, this absolutely needs to be seen in IMAX 3D. Avatar is the only other movie I've ever come close to feeling that way about. Normally, I think 3D and IMAX are just gimmicks for studios to get more money out of ticket buyers. But here, director Robert Zemeckis created something truly special. I'm not even terribly afraid of heights. I would never go skydiving or hang gliding, but I've gone zip lining, hiked on mountain trails, and can look down from rooftops without feeling dizzy. But my palms were constantly sweaty during The Walk's final 30 minutes. I don't know that I've ever had that kind of physical reaction from a movie before. 

Casual moviegoers may not be aware that a documentary was made about Petit called Man on Wire. It won an Oscar. Both hold their own as separate works. Zemeckis' film isn't just a slick repackaging of the documentary. The documentary does a better job of getting inside the heads of Petit and his accomplices, but the new film makes you feel like you are on the wire in a way the documentary can't. How do you feel the two movies complement each other?


David: The screenplay to The Walk is sloppy at times, with thin characterizations and characters quickly popping in and out of the story. It never delves into the relationships between Petit and his accomplices like Man on Wire does, but I don't think The Walk was going for anything really heavy. It's a breezy drama structured like a heist film and it works on that level. The documentary gives an in-depth account of before, during and after the wire-walking event while Zemeckis' film builds to the event and — through visual effects that should win an Oscar - puts us on that wire high above the city. These two films are great companion pieces to each other — one gives you the detailed true story while the other shows you vividly what that wire walk must have been like. 

What really holds The Walk together is the central performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. In the role Gordon-Levitt is charming, funny and does a convincing French accent. He makes you root for this guy rather than considering him certifiably insane. Agree? 


Fritz: Gordon-Levitt is charismatic, which is important because it makes you believe that accomplices would actually follow and assist him in his crazy scheme. Although I thought one of the strengths of the documentary was that the real-life Petit came across as both a charming artist and a somewhat bonkers egotist (as a person would probably have to be to attempt something so audacious and dangerous). 

Speaking of the stunt's insanity, it's interesting that we saw this so soon after Everest. Both films are about people striving to do the seemingly impossible at great risk to their own safety. But in Everest, most of them die and in The Walk, he lives and becomes a folk hero. It made me think that if he'd died on the wire, no one would have celebrated his daring and panache. He'd have turned into a mostly forgotten punchline, even though in the end, he's just as crazy/brave regardless of the final result.

Overall, I don't know if this is one of best films of the year —  there's too much clunkiness to the screenplay and the first hour is no great shakes — but the final 30 minutes are probably the purest cinematic experience I'll have in 2015. It has the kind of awe-and-wonder you can only receive from watching a movie on the big screen. 

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