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NYFF15: ‘The Walk’ falls short of the clouds

The Walk
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by Christopher Browne and Robert Zemeckis
2015, USA

Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, based on Philippe Petit’s wire walk between the Twin Towers in the early 1970s, opens on the face of its star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, thereby setting the tone for the film: Zemeckis puts much technical effort and detail into accentuating the depth and various surfaces of the actor’s face, despite the fact that nothing but tall tales falls from his character’s mouth. The film has a striking sense of depth and focus as a physical concept, but, psychologically, it’s all surface.

That the film also has a title card reading “…A True Story” also serves as an early indicator. It’s Philippe’s film, wholeheartedly, even setting a good portion of its first act in a stylized Paris. It’s shot in black and white with select objects and elements in color; it’s the Pleasantville effect, but to what end? The objects highlighted don’t seem to have any real significance. Perhaps this stylistic element is meant to reflect the mindset of Phillipe’s internal monologue, but it’s seldom inventive or compelling. Worse, no other visual element in the film explicitly points out a similar kind of subjective experience.

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The Walk‘s approach to characterization and exposition is shortsighted throughout. Philippe, despite Gordon-Levitt’s charismatic performance, barely feels fleshed out enough to be presented as a conventional puzzle for the audience to solve, and anytime we wonder why he’s committing so single-mindedly to crossing the Twin Towers, his voice-over narration explains exactly what he’s feeling and why. There’s a missed opportunity to explore the psychological toll that this obsession took on Petit, whether in the form of the literal dedication or in terms of masculinity in crisis. We don’t really see the physical or emotional toll either, either in Petit or in any of his “accomplices.” Everyone else seems to be rendered flatly, as side characters used to prop up Petit’s goal.

The 2008 documentary Man on Wire, by director James Marsh, frames the walk as a heist, and The Walk seems to dance around this framework as well. But Man on Wire does a better job at being able to discern between the subjective, fantastical recanting of Petit against the “authenticity” of the rare film footage and photographs, and once more juxtaposed against the testimony of others that were involved. The Walk is only interested in Petit on a superficial level, and it shows in how it wants to thrill its audience.

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The one discursive component of the film is, as with the rest of it, tepidly examined: the idea of art as anarchy. Petit sees his wire walking as anarchic. Albert (Ben Schwartz), photographer and accomplice, sees all art as anarchic. Yet, the film never asks “anarchic to what?” The team constantly calls their plan “the coup,” which means “seizure of power.” Is the fact that these Twin Towers exist as a reminder of capitalism the power from which they are to seize? While there are what feel like throwaway lines regarding Nixon and Watergate, there doesn’t seem to be a fully realized world or system or structure to be anarchic against.

The eponymous finale of the film is certainly something to be experienced on a big screen, but the artificial quality of the surroundings, which aren’t of the same kind of strangely expressionistic renderings of Paris at the beginning of the film, weaken its impact. Instead, it just feels and looks kind of tacky, which seems to undermine the ecstasy that both Petit and the audience are supposed to feel. While the depth of field in the film’s post-converted 3D reaches far, our understanding of Philippe Petit is barely five feet off the ground.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.

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