Robert Zemeckis Brings “The Walk” to Vivid Life

You might think that James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire was the last word on Philippe Petit’s unforgettable walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The Walk proves otherwise. Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis wanted to dramatize what could only be talked about, inferred or glimpsed in the non-fiction movie. With the help of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Naomi Shohan, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie, he’s created an amazing film that makes dazzling use of cinematic storytelling and deserves to be seen in 3-D.

The casting of Gordon-Levitt was inspired, not just because he speaks fluent French and was willing to learn to wire-walk. He persuasively emulates the impudence, arrogance, charm, and single-mindedness of the French entertainer and acrobat. In lesser hands this character could have been glib or off-putting. Gordon-Levitt makes him genuine, a decidedly offbeat hero worth cheering for.

The Walk-Joseph Gordon Levitt

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, The Walk uses dramatic license to turn Petit’s life and ultimate adventure into a kind of fairy tale—which, come to think of it, isn’t so far from the truth. We witness his evolution from street performer to would-be wire walker, under the tough-love tutelage of a crusty circus veteran (Ben Kingsley). He is also inspired by a fellow street performer who becomes his most important ally and inspiration (Charlotte LeBon). And Zemeckis allows us to see through Petit’s eyes as he envisions places he dreams of stretching his wire so he can do “the impossible.” In time, this  leads him to the two tallest buildings on earth, before they are even completed.

As you may remember from Man on Wire, this involved recruiting a team of co-conspirators to pull off a caper worthy of any Hollywood thriller. All of this is vividly realized, culminating in the walk itself, a bravura piece of moviemaking that—like Petit himself—makes the impossible seem irrefutably real. Unlike other moviemakers who speak of “subtle” use of 3-D, Zemeckis revels in the medium, staging shots with people and objects in the foreground and various planes of action. It’s fun, and exciting, to watch.

And if The Walk runs out of gas in its final stages, that’s a small complaint considering the entertainment it has provided for two hours. The Walk is a tour-de-force for its filmmaker and star alike.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024