Spectacle has gone over well enough at the Oscars in recent years. James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” were big hits with the Academy. Ditto Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” And you could argue last year’s champ, “Birdman,” was a breed of spectacle, too.
That’s the lineage Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” is hoping to join after it opens the New York Film Festival tonight (after being delayed a day due to the Pope’s visit). A jaunty, slick, commercial presentation of high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s death-defying stroll between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974, the film could spark for Academy members looking for something unique in the race this year. That is, unless they feel like they’ve already seen this one before.
The problem “The Walk” faces is the fact that James Marsh’s 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” told this story rather definitively in the eyes of many. Right down to the pulse-pounding thriller elements, it covered — narratively speaking — almost all of the terrain Zemeckis and company do here. What “The Walk” has going for it, though, is an awe-inspiring final chapter that will trigger vertigo in countless viewers as Joseph Gordon-Levitt prances out onto a thin wire stretching to infinity.
Indeed, the entire wire walk sequence is impeccably rendered. The photography, sound, certainly the visual effects — everything comes together for a unique experience that will make the film stand out from other contenders this season. Nothing will have what “The Walk” has to offer, and that’s a commodity this time of year.
But there are other potential caveats. Will the choice to have Gordon-Levitt narrate the film from the torch of the Statue of Liberty, speaking to the audience as if Petit himself were warming up a Central Park crowd, come across as more cheesy than fun? Will his French accent, however accurate to Petit, be distracting? Will the film feel lightweight? Will it be a box office dud (it’s tracking poorly at the moment)? All of that is certainly possible.
One thing I hope to see singled out in reviews is James Badge Dale’s performance as one of Petit’s accomplices. Every time this guy shows up on screen, from TV’s “24” to Zemeckis’ own “Flight” to Marvel’s “Iron Man 3,” he just pops. He has charisma to burn and he’s literally becoming, for me, reason enough to buy a ticket. I don’t think there’s enough to work with here to necessarily get him into the supporting actor Oscar conversation, but he is easily one of my favorite elements of the film.
Sony has an interesting awards slate on its hands this year. There was the critical misfire “Ricki and the Flash,” which, you know — never count out Meryl Streep. There is “The Walk,” and there is the big splash still to come: Peter Landesman’s NFL drama “Concussion” with Will Smith. A year after that unfortunate hack situation, and with new honcho Tom Rothman looking to get the prestige gears turning, the studio could go any number of ways in the Oscar race. We’ll find out soon enough if Petit’s harrowing, beautiful act still resonates with voters looking to add a little bit of eye-popping wonder to their ballots.