Upon its debut at the New York Film Festival, "The Walk" enters awards season with much of the groundwork already laid for academy approval as it tells a true story that has already won an Oscar. The death-defying stunt by French daredevil Philippe Petit — who secretly rigged a high wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 and walked between them — was the subject of 2008's Best Documentary Feature "Man on Wire." Will Petit's high-wire act now be an Oscar winner as a dramatic adaptation?
"The Walk" is directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis, who won an Oscar for helming the 1994 Best Picture champ "Forrest Gump." He was also nominated for co-writing "Back to the Future" in 1985. While "Forrest Gump" is the only Zemeckis film ever to have competed for Best Picture, that could change now that the category can have as many as 10 nominees. Most of Zemeckis's films as a director have contended in at least one category, from the Best Editing bid for "Romancing the Stone" (1984) to the Best Sound nomination for "Contact" (1997) and most recently the two for "Flight" (2012): Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Original Screenplay.
"The Walk" could do well in below-the-line categories, particularly Best Visual Effects for the seamless CGI used to make Petit's high-wire walk believable and unnerving, and Best Cinematography for Dariusz Wolski's eye-popping work with 3D imagery. These two awards went hand-in-hand at the Oscars for five consecutive years from 2009-2013. And Alan Silvestri's score as well as sound and editing could be recognized.
If there is that much passion for the film in craft categories, that love could translate to a Best Picture nomination as well. Industry pros will relate to Petit's struggle to get his project off the ground – literally. Last year's Best Picture winner, "Birdman," was also about an artist struggling to make his labor of love. And 2011 champ "The Artist" covered similar ground.
The destruction of the Twin Towers almost 30 years after Petit's walk gives the film an added feeling of importance and solemnity. Remember that "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" earned a surprise Best Picture bid in 2011 for dramatizing the events of 9/11.
But "The Walk" is not a funereal dirge about the World Trade Center. Rather, it plays like a lighthearted caper, kind of like "Ocean's Eleven" for daredevil acrobats. Will the academy take it seriously as art? It doesn't have as many showy directorial flourishes as "Birdman" did or the same kind of dark existential crisis at its core. But that might not matter as much if it has critics and audiences on its side.
So far, critics are on board. It has a 77 score on MetaCritic based on 13 reviews as of this writing. A.O. Scott of the New York Times calls it "painstaking and dazzling," while Peter Debruge of Variety says that Zemeckis "proves his magician’s ability to blend character and technology in such a way that virtuoso style springs organically from the material itself." With more reviews like those, "The Walk" could be a sure-fire contender if it's also a box-office hit. And it certainly is accessible enough to attract a wide audience, especially for a filmmaker who has made hits out of tougher sells like alcoholism ("Flight"), isolation ("Cast Away") and faith ("Contact").
As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he might have a tougher time in the Best Actor race for his leading role as Petit. He doesn't do the kind of tortured, emotional grandstanding the academy usually likes. However, he speaks French, adopts a French accent for his English-language dialogue and learned how to walk on a wire. We know how much voters like an actor who commits so thoroughly to a biographical role. That's what the last three Best Actor winners did – Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln," Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club" and Eddie Redmayne in "The Theory of Everything" – so if "The Walk" does well with the academy, Gordon-Levitt could go along for the ride. After years of well-received work, he could also be considered overdue for his first Oscar hug.
The Tristar release had its world premiere Saturday as the opening night attraction at the New York Film Festival, in advance of its Sept. 30 release in IMAX theaters (it goes wide on Oct. 9). The Gotham filmfest has launched a slew of Oscar contenders in recent years. Among the opening night fare to reap Best Picture bids have been "The Social Network" (2010), "Life of Pi" (2012) and "Captain Phillips" (2013).
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Photo: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Charlotte Le Bon in "The Walk." Credit: Moviestore/REX