Channeling the spirit of its subject, The Walk assumes a clownish attitude until, during its finale, it switches gears to become a solemn, striking tribute to human ingenuity, ambition and daring. Though the story of Philippe Petit has already been told in James Marsh’s sterling 2008 documentary Man on Wire, Robert Zemeckis’s fictionalized account of the Frenchman’s August 6, 1974 early morning walk across a wire strung between Manhattan’s World Trade Center towers affords what that non-fiction gem could not: a depiction of Petit actually performing his feat, which was not recorded on film at the time. Having long since become a director more interested in computerized wizardry than flesh-and-blood people, Zemeckis seems most comfortable during this show-stopping centerpiece, with his precise, graceful 3D compositions boasting a death-defying depth that generates suspense as well as awestruck astonishment at Petit’s audacious balancing act.
Before that climax can knock one’s socks off—especially when seen in IMAX 3D—Zemeckis first details the path that led Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to his fateful stroll. To do that, he attunes his storytelling mode to the personality of Petit, which is to say, he casts his material as a goofy lark full of grating hijinks and crude mugging, quite a lot of which is set in blatantly phony-looking CG environments. Thus, whether it’s Petit’s formative childhood trip to the circus, where he meets Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a Czech acrobat expert who soon becomes his mentor, or Petit’s time spent wowing crowds and fleeing cops as a silent juggler, unicyclist and wire-walker (an obnoxiousness hat trick!) as a Paris street performer, the director stages his action like a broad comedy. The Walk thinks exaggerated expressions and even more exaggerated accents—none more extreme than Gordon-Levitt’s affected Pepé Le Pew enunciation—are the height of charming hilarity.
To make matters even more affected, Gordon-Levitt’s Petit narrates his story, often in to-the-camera interludes that find him standing atop the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers glistening in the background. Those fourth-wall-breaking moments are written in the most overblown fashion possible, and highlight the mannered kookiness of his performance, not to mention amplify the proceedings’ overarching corniness. Unlike Man on Wire, Zemeckis’s script (co-written by Christopher Browne, from Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds) glosses over the heist-like machinations that allowed Petit and his French and American accomplices to escape detection and successfully sneak into the Towers (still under construction in 1974). Similarly, it skims past his actual wire-walking preparations for the deed, so busy is it indulging in bits involving Petit’s motley crew—including his featureless girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and an embarrassingly lame stoner stereotype—and the incessantly screamy squabbles they have in the lead up to the big day.
To be generous, the hokiness of The Walk’s first half is completely in sync with Petit himself. And mercifully, it dissipates once the film enters into its climactic phase, with Petit and his crew reaching the towers’ rooftops in the dead of night and, after avoiding a nearby guard, working to string their cable between the two towers before daylight breaks. At that point, Zemeckis discards any pretense toward absurdity in order to fully express the sheer magnitude of Petit’s stunt. His camera alternately gazing downward at Petit’s feet as he moves along the narrow cable, or situating itself in front of Petit before rotating and zooming out to contextualize the man’s spatial circumstances, Zemeckis employs CG wizardry and three-dimensional effects to convey the feeling of being in his protagonist’s shoes—a sensation that, even sitting in the theater, is at once terrifying and exhilarating.
Some of that excitement is ultimately mitigated by the fact that the outcome of Petit’s story is never in doubt. Even without much in the way of third-act surprise, however, The Walk employs its dexterous aesthetics to evocatively celebrate Petit’s accomplishment as a triumph of individual nerve and skill. More moving still, in its loving portraits of the Twin Towers looming over downtown Manhattan and its millions of inhabitants, the film equates Petit and his “coup” with the World Trade Center itself: Both are examples of mankind’s limitless and (in spirit, if not reality) indestructible potential to reach seemingly impossible heights.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz
Release Date: September 30, 2015