THE WALK

ImageMovers/Sony Picture Entertainment, 2015
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne, Philippe Petit
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Out of 5: 2.5

Why risk life and limb to walk a high wire between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, 110 stories above the ground? Good question. Why retell the tale of the man who accomplished this stunning feat when it was already masterfully told in the documentary Man on Wire? Another good question.

Neither is fully answered by director Robert Zemeckis in the thoroughly unnecessary The Walk. While the taut and inspiring documentary offers the breathless excitement of exploring the impossible (as well as the euphoric mania of the man doing so), The Walk is more of a breezy caper that never quite lives up to the visceral drama inherent to the titular high-wire act.  

Film still, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2015
Film still, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2015

This is no fault of star Joseph Gordon Levitt, who depicts the intrepid wire-walker Phillipe Petit. Even while wavering in and out of a French accent that ranges from relatively subtle to full-on Pepe Le Pew, Levitt remains remarkably game and his charm is impossible to deny. As Petit, he joyfully narrates the proceedings from atop the Statue of Liberty while occasionally gazing admiringly at the Twin Towers in the background (there’s likely something to be said about an American actor adopting the persona of a Frenchman while atop a monument from France that is largely co-opted as a symbol of American exceptionalism).

The tale spans Petit’s boyhood dreams of wire-walking and his becoming a talented, beloved Parisian street performer to his obsession with applying his death-defying skills on the stage of his dreams: the air between New York’s Twin Towers. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a fellow busker, played by Charlotte Le Bon. While she is his supposed strength and inspiration, Zemeckis gives short shrift to Petit’s love interest and the film gives little indication to back up her importance to its hero. Ben Kingsley also stops by to prestige up the place as Petit’s showmanship mentor, Papa Rudy. There is a nice sense of charm and wonder to scenes of Petit figuratively and literally learning the ropes and deepening his love for “the wire,” but these events are moved through briskly as a lead up to Petit’s plan to take Manhattan.

There is some fun to be had with the trials and tribulations of the complicated planning involved in Petit’s self-described “coup” of infiltrating the Twin Towers and installing his wire for his daring walk, including the recruitment of a rag tag crew of accomplices. James Badge Dale brings a needed dose of swagger as the Frenchman–cum-New Yorker who joins Petit’s mission and helps him navigate the nuances of New York City. But the rest of the crew includes oddly forgettable members whose uses are either glossed over or unmentioned altogether, including an eye-rolling hippie stereotype whose perpetually-stoned caricature would not be out of place in a Scooby-Doo episode. This is indicative of the film’s broad treatment of its 70’s pastiche as a whole: background hippies go through all the beaded dress up motions (all the while muttering things like “righteous”), and there is a wink at the audience over Petit’s breezy customs inspection of his highly suspicious equipment that includes a “good luck” from a hapless New York cop.

All of Petit and company’s “spy work” and plotting lead up to the titular stroll between the towers, which is the proverbial money shot the entire film is based around. And, to his credit, Zemeckis does earn some genuine moments of awe with a dizzying view from atop the towers and the film’s thrumming sound design, a layering of high tension wires and muted New York City soundscapes. However, Zemeckis can’t quite seem to quit his much-maligned bag of animation tricks, and all of the earned grace and suspense of Petit’s walk is almost irrevocably deflated with the appearance of a hideous CGI seagull. The stunning, brazen beauty of Petit’s act of guerilla art isn’t entirely diminished by this moment, but to call it jarring would be an understatement. Similarly, an NYPD helicopter makes an appearance to needlessly add drama to an already dramatic situation, not to mention the fact that it defies logic to believe Petit could stay balanced amid the whirl of a swarming helicopter.

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Film still, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2015

The 3D-induced vertigo is very real in the tighter shots of Levitt navigating his wire and occasionally looking down along the more-than-1,300-foot drop below. But wider shots have the unnatural, gliding feel of a weightless figurine not fully rendered. Petit’s walk is occasionally frightfully real, but also seems disorienting and low-stakes when the seams show.

The Walk is little more than the theme park-ride version of Petit’s tale, and in that regard it almost succeeds on pure spectacle. But with its garish treatment of the final act, the quiet menace and beauty of Petit’s walk is cheapened. Through its light surface treatment of Petit and his partners, but also the at-times unconvincing, buoyant effects, The Walk neglects the one thing it should respect most of all: gravity.

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