The original tagline for Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film was, “you’ll believe a man can fly”, but even that doesn’t compare to the sense of awe you’ll feel while witnessing Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Whether it’s scaling Everest or visiting Mars, the spirit of human endeavour makes for rich cinematic viewing, and nowhere is that more evident than in Robert Zemeckis’ visually-stunning balancing act, The Walk. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, a peculiar Frenchman who astounded the world by attempting a daring high-wire stunt between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974, this is one biopic that doesn’t get bogged down in melodrama, and instead revolves around a single exceptional act that’ll leave your jaw agape in wonderment.
As Petit, Gordon-Levitt gives a whimsical performance that isn’t overshadowed by the technical wizardry swirling around him. His wig, contact lenses and accent might be a little disconcerting at first, but JGL overcomes the eccentricities of his character to woo the audience through a combination of wry humour and wide-eyed fascination.
We’re presented with an opening act that charts Petit’s rural upbringing, followed by his Parisian street performance phase where he meets his future girlfriend and partner-in-crime, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). Thankfully, this sequence doesn’t drag, and we’re soon whisked across to America where the tone shifts from meandering biopic to high-stakes heist film. Once Zemeckis roots the film firmly on the beautifully recreated streets of 70’s New York, the film jumps up several notches; new accomplices for Philippe’s coup are introduced (James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Ben Schwartz), a plan begins to take shape, and the whole thing begins to feel decidedly Ocean’s Eleven.
And then, finally, the film reaches the dizzying climax atop the World Trade Centre. To call this sequence a master class of suspense building, and seamless special effects would be an understatement; it’s an eye-wateringly realistic piece of filmmaking that’ll make your knees wobble, skin shiver and palms sweat. As Philippe steps out onto the wire, you’re so engrossed in the moment that you can almost feel the wind on your face, and the gaping chasm stretching out beneath you.
Plus, the addition of 3D further heightens this sense of immersion; witnessed on a vast Cinemax screen, this is one nail-biting scene that needs to be seen to be believed – if you’ll pardon the cliché. The film isn’t just an astounding accomplishment in VFX though; it’s also a love letter to New York and the World Trade Centre in particular; the closing shot sees the two iconic towers gently glow gold in the warm Atlantic sun, and they’re very much a fully-fleshed character of their own throughout the entire movie.
That being said, there are one or two elements that felt out of place or undercooked; Ben Kingsley is really just there to collect a pay check as Papa Rudy, Philippe’s circus mentor, whilst Zemeckis employs this odd framing device that sees Gordon-Levitt stand atop the Statue of Liberty providing narration on the story as it unfolds.
Nit-picks aside, The Walk is an engrossing cinema experience that a DVD rental or download just wouldn’t do justice. It delicately sidesteps conventional biopic pitfalls, and instead delivers a jaw-dropping crescendo that will make your heart race. Do yourself a favour and seek this one out – if you’re not afraid of falling that is…
The Walk is available in Australian cinemas from October 15th
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures