Review: ‘The Walk’ may be the best use ever of Zemeckis and his VFX wizardry

I knew how it ended before I walked into the theater. After all, I've seen “Man On Wire,” and it ended up on my ten best list for 2008, and I know how the story ends. Beyond that, I knew that I was looking at the state-of-the-art of what visual effects could accomplish in the year 2015 and not actual footage of an event in the '70s. Even so, the new Robert Zemeckis film “The Walk” made my hands sweat and my stomach ache for a solid 45 minutes, and I suspect it's going to be a big-screen sensation thanks to people going back to witness it several times.

One of the truths of the new age of theatrical distribution is that you have to give an audience a reason to go to a theater and not just wait for a more convenient time and place to see a film. If you have ever taken my opinion to be worth anything to you, then believe me when I say that “The Walk” should be seen in 3D IMAX if at all possible, IMAX if no 3D option exists, and short of that, the biggest goddamn screen you have access to, because this is a remarkable theatrical experience.

As a film, “The Walk” is good, and occasionally very good. There is no doubt that Robert Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter Christopher Browne benefit from the existence of “Man On Wire,” the James Marsh documentary on the event. While the films play in very different ways, there's a chunk of “The Walk” that owes a huge debt to the way Marsh treated this all like a heist movie. Since Marsh didn't have footage of the build-up to the actual event, he had to shoot reproductions, and Zemeckis is basically just doing a big-budget version of that, and doing it very, very well. But the thing that Marsh's film could never do was give us a sense of how it felt to actually make that walk, and that's where Zemeckis seems positively giddy as a filmmaker.

In some ways, this is one of the most Zemeckis movies that Zemeckis has ever made. Going all the way back to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “Used Cars” or the script for “1941,” Zemeckis has always had a hint of Rube Goldberg to him, a love for creating situations where he can then ratchet up tension with a series of complications. “Back To The Future,” co-written with his frequent early collaborator Bob Gale, is the perfect expression of that kind of movie, pure popcorn that is all about set-ups, curveballs, and beautiful pay-offs.

“The Walk” tells the story of how Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) got the idea to do a tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center back in the mid-'70s, and then how he pulled it off. It's a pretty safe bet that if they're telling you the story, then (A) he actually managed to do the walk and (B) he didn't fall and die, so I don't think it's a spoiler to suggest that. This is a film that is all about the “how,” and in order to build the forty-five minute centerpiece sequence of the movie, Zemeckis and his collaborators had to create a perfect rooftop to the World Trade Center, and they had to create a photo-realistic New York City 110 floors below, and the result is both an emotional and a technical triumph.

The film's weakest section is the first 30 minutes or so, where the film struggles not to drown under the weight of its whimsy, a very real danger when you're telling the story of Philippe Petit. This is, after all, a former street magician and juggler who gets upset to the point of tears at one point in the film because he can't wear his turtleneck. We're talking about precious on top of whimsical on top of quirky, and filtering that through Gordon-Levitt's not-quite-Le-Pew of an accent makes the opening of the film feel at times like an adorable French puppy that just can't stop humping your leg. The film reaches cute critical mass when Philippe meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), the single most pretty little French girl in the history of pretty little French girls, complete with guitar and ethereal Leonard Cohen cover when we meet her. Thankfully, the film shifts into the much-better second act, in which Philippe puts the plan together. It's all about collecting supporting cast, including an excellent James Badge Dale as a former Frenchman who has managed to assimilate so well that he has seemingly become every New Yorker at once. Ben Schwartz is very good, though under-utilized, and Steve Valentine has a spectacular introduction as Barry Greenhouse, whose facial hair is half the performance.

Where the movie excels, though, is in the actual execution of the caper. It is legitimately beautiful, and one of my favorite shots in the film came just a moment after he steps out onto the wire for the first time. It's a point of view shot as Philippe looks down at his feet, one slipping out in front of the other, and it is startlingly realistic. The feeling of vertigo that kicked in and the sense that you know why Philippe is moving his feet that way and the tactile details of the sounds and the sights… it absolutely transported me. I had a non-stop physical reaction to the entire sequence, and it is that sequence that I suspect will drive people to the theater repeatedly. I plan to take my two sons to see the film in IMAX 3D, and I will recommend that my parents see it that way. I thought it was odd that much of marketing for the film in the last few weeks has been aimed at calling it a “family film,” but I can see that. If “Hugo” was sold to families, then this could easily be a cross-over family hit.

In the end, the thing I took from this film is the same thing I took from “Man On Wire,” a renewed love for the World Trade Center as a symbol, and an admiration for the way Petit approached his art. Beyond that, I find myself at peace with the two different halves of Robert Zemeckis, maybe for the first time in 20 years. I was a rabid fan at the start of his career, then hit a stretch of films where I didn't care for any of what he was doing, and then have wrestled with my complicated reactions to his scripts as opposed to his technical acumen. When he is on, though, no one can do quite what Zemeckis does. He is an illusionist on a level that David Copperfield can only dream of, and he can accomplish real magic from time to time. As Petit waits to step out onto the cable, a cluster of clouds rolls in, and for a moment, he is alone on top of the world, wrapped in silence. He steps out, the clouds clear, and I am reminded that when you're watching something Zemeckis made, anything can happen, and reality is up for grabs. In this case, he's used his powers for good, and the end result is stirring and spectacular at times, with a devastating, if subtle, final line of dialogue.

“The Walk” opens in select giant format venues on September 30th, and everyone else gets it a week later.