The Walk review: Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this film version of a far better Oscar-winning docu

Perhaps the most poignant part of The Walk is seeing the twin towers of New York standing, like sentinels in the Manhattan Skyline.

Deepanjana Pal October 08, 2015 10:59:55 IST
The Walk review: Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this film version of a far better Oscar-winning docu

At one point in The Walk, we see Joseph Gordon-Levitt in what seems possible only in dreams. He's lying down, on a wire that's strung from the corner of the World Trade Centre's North Tower to the corresponding corner of the South Tower. Seeing him dangling a few hundred feet above the ground will make your stomach drop. If you don't know the story of high-wire artist Philippe Petit, then you'll think that this stuff is only possible with CGI-flavoured movie magic.

Yet the fact is, in 1974, a man did indeed string a wire between the WTC's Twin Towers. He walked from tower to tower, not once but eight times. He knelt on the wire, in the middle of its length. He also lay down on it, just as Gordon-Levitt does in The Walk. Everything you see in the film is true and despite all the computers available to Hollywood, the film is strangely flimsy next to the real story.

Back in 1996, Susan Sontag wrote an article titled "The Decay of Cinema" for The New York Times. It was a scathing attack on Hollywood's greed and how it was, according to her, destroying cinema.

"...ordinary films, films made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial) purposes, are astonishingly witless; the vast majority fail resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted audiences. While the point of a great film is now, more than ever, to be a one-of-a-kind achievement, the commercial cinema has settled for a policy of bloated, derivative film-making, a brazen combinatory or recombinatory art, in the hope of reproducing past successes."

The Walk review Joseph GordonLevitt stars in this film version of a far better Oscarwinning docu

A still from The Walk. Image from Facebook.

Almost 20 years later, with Hollywood rehashing franchises and remaking films in a desperate frenzy, Sontag remains more on point than ever. The Walk is proof of this. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Kingsley, it's the kind of film that we get excited about. Zemeckis is the man who made clever, delightful films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her, Contact and Forrest Gump. He loves using high-tech tricks to tell his stories and he uses them well. Why would this man make a film that's effectively a remake of a celebrated documentary?

The Walk is the story of high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who walked on a wire strung between the two towers of the WTC, making history and creating unforgettable images of a tiny miracle of a man hovering over the shiny vastness of New York City. It was spectacular, magnificent, harmless and thoroughly criminal.

Petit's story has everything one needs to make a brilliant film about art, imagination, ambition, ego and beauty. We know this because someone — James Marsh, to be precise — has already made that: Man on Wire, made in 2008 and winner of the Oscar for best documentary.

In The Walk, just like in Man on Wire, Petit (Gordon-Levitt, with an acceptable French accent and an unacceptable hair cut) is the narrator. The film follows a neat chronology. For reasons unexplained, Petit is perched on top of the Statue of Liberty and he tells us his life in flashback. The only new tidbit that The Walk offers is the figure of circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) who taught Petit the tricks of the high wire trade.

There are many scenes in The Walk that are perfect copies of the footage in Man on Wire, like the shots of Petit and his girlfriend on the wire, only without the commentary that provided perspective in the documentary. For instance, when we see young Petit and his girlfriend walking on the wire in Man on Wire, we hear her recount how she was very much Petit's sidekick rather than partner. In The Walk, on the other hand, there is no such commentary and those moments become uncomplicated examples of young love. In Man on Wire, they suggest Petit's charming, obsessive and domineering nature.

In his documentary, Marsh ensured that key "accomplices" in Petit's project had their say. We saw Petit through other people's eyes and recognised both his extraordinary ambition and skill, and also his monumental ego. These other points of view emphasise what a crazy feat the WTC project was and Petit's single-minded focus, which didn't flicker even when those close to him were being trampled.

The Walk edits episodes and people from Petit's life. What emerges is a rose-tinted portrait of a man who is flatly heroic and smooths over his rougher edges. Zemeckis glosses over juicy details like how one of the first things Petit did after completing his high wire act at WTC was go for a sexual romp with a stranger. While Petit was barely rapped on his knuckles for his criminal performance, his accomplice was expelled from America, which seems harsh and inconsistent. Petit didn't stick with his comrades. They got on a plane and returned to France. Petit basked in his new-found fame. Zemeckis ignores this.

The whitewashed Petit is less captivating as a character and as a result, The Walk doesn't really feel engaging until Petit is on the wire. Even then, there's little of the actual tension that grips you while watching Man on Wire because in The Walk, you know it's all fake and digitally recreated.

There would be no need to bring up Marsh's film if The Walk made for compelling viewing and was an insightful portrait of Petit. Zemeckis had Petit's autobiography as his source as well as Petit himself (Petit was a consultant on the film). Zemeckis also had at his disposal a big budget and contemporary digital imagery. Yet, the shadow of Marsh's documentary looms large over The Walk. The photographs with blurred outlines of Petit sitting on almost-thin air, of him grinning as he walks on the wire and away from the hapless policemen on the roof of one of the twin towers — they're actually far more captivating than anything Zemeckis and his crew are able to recreate.

Perhaps the most poignant part of The Walk is seeing the twin towers of New York standing, like sentinels in the Manhattan Skyline. Ours is an era of lost monuments and it's only in the imaginary that so many structures that filled our heads with dreams and fantasies can exist. To make a film about Petit and his beloved WTC in 2015 and not explore that angle is a monumental fail.

For those who know the Twin Towers only as crumbled tombstones made of smoke and tragedy, The Walk is a tour of those buildings as they were originally and as they were meant to be. To see them up close, watch The Walk. But to know what the madness and passion they inspired, find a DVD of Man on Wire.

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