Robert Zemeckis‘ The Walk is all about “the walk.” That is to say, the movie comes to dazzling life in its spectacular final 40 minutes or so, when Philippe Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, saunters out on a cable and gives us a vertiginous view of the French tightrope walker’s 1974 aerial feat, as he tiptoed across the clouds between the towers of the World Trade Center. Harnessing the wizardry of 3D Imax to magnify the sheer transporting wonder, the you-are-there thrill of the experience, the film’s payoff more than compensates for a lumbering setup, laden with cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy.
Zemeckis‘ delivery of such a sustained money shot — literally breathtaking, stomach-churning, sweat-inducing and exhilarating — should ensure solid numbers for Sony. American audiences, in particular, will respond to the unspoken coda of the Twin Towers’ destruction, which gives the film an emotional resonance that might otherwise have been more muted.
Sharing screenwriting credit with newcomer Christopher Browne, Zemeckis adapted the true story from Petit’s memoir, To Reach the Clouds. The director goes back to his Forrest Gump playbook by having his protagonist narrate the story every painstaking step of the way. This proves a big hurdle as Gordon-Levitt’s mop-top Philippe opens with some cringe-inducing direct-address, musing on the obvious question of “Why? Pourquoi?” in a cheesy French accent. The clunky framing device gets worse when the camera pans back to find him perched in the Statue of Liberty’s torch, although the digital re-creation of early-’70s lower Manhattan he surveys is indeed impressive.
In his gripping 2008 documentary account of Petit’s career-defining act of subversive performance art, Man on Wire, director James Marsh made no excuses for the egomaniacal side of his daredevil subject. Zemeckis tries to get around that by depicting Petit as a cute imp who pedals away on a unicycle when he’s kicked out of his home by his father. But in Gordon-Levitt’s self-regarding performance, the character is borderline obnoxious, right up until he acquires some vulnerability by virtue of the void stretching out beneath him.
The film also works too hard at injecting charm into Petit’s backstory, not to mention finding contrived reasons for him to speak English with the band of “accomplices” he assembles in Paris as he prepares for his coup. The idea of a Frenchman obsessed with conquering America is subliminally planted early via not one but three French-language versions of jukebox classics — “Sugar Sugar,” “Black Is Black” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” And Philippe’s guitar-strumming sweetheart Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) is introduced crooning Leonard Cohen‘s “Suzanne” en francais.
Zemeckis uses the jazzy strains of Alan Silvestri‘s score to instill the feel of a crime caper or a heist movie, but for much of the running time, conflict remains absent. Photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) signs on to help, also enlisting Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy), a math whiz who speaks little English and is terrified of heights. The most significant embellishment to the story as chronicled in Man on Wire is Philippe’s mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the patriarch of a funambulist dynasty whose gruff exterior veils the heart of a twinkly-eyed softie.
Only when the action moves to New York does the film shift gears and gain lasting traction. A handful of American accomplices are brought on board, notably Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), an insurance broker with an office high up in one of the World Trade Center towers, and smart-talking electronics salesman J.P. (James Badge Dale). But this is a movie in which the characters and their dialogue remain secondary to the complicated logistics of their illegal undertaking. And unsurprisingly for a filmmaker like Zemeckis, who has shown a defining fascination with technological magic, it’s the focus on the specifics — research, planning, rigging, setbacks and lucky breaks — that finally tightens the storytelling grip.
Working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and a crack visual effects team, the director puts us 110 stories off the ground and dares us to look down. Despite a preordained outcome that pretty much nixes any element of surprise, he builds suspense into the placement of the cable and its strategic support wires, the last-minute defection of jittery team members, the appearance of security guards and the more surreal introduction of a “mysterious visitor,” who appears on the rooftop at the eleventh hour like some kind of brooding Don Draper stepping into a dream.
The movie truly soars the minute Philippe steps out on that wire, amplifying its awe factor as a crowd gathers on the street below to stare up in amazement. Wolski’s camera swoops like a bird, traveling the distance of the towers in both directions, giving us Petit’s point of view as well as hovering above him. It may fumble the preamble, but The Walk works where it counts most, creating a spectacle of balletic beauty out of an act that otherwise remains inscrutable to the screenwriters.
Of course, none of this is great news for the actors, including Gordon-Levitt. Despite the actor’s intense physicality and manic energy, both the character and performance remain constricted by a script that tells rather than explores. “I am mad. I am insane. I am totally crazy,” admits Philippe in a moment of typically bald self-analysis that precludes psychological complexity. The film also glosses over the evaporation of his bond with Annie and Jean-Louis immediately after the coup, sacrificing some of the poignancy that Marsh summoned in Man on Wire.
Zemeckis does emphasize the point that at the time New Yorkers were ambivalent about the towers that so radically altered the Manhattan skyline, crediting Petit’s captivating stunt with engendering affection for the twin steel-and-glass monoliths as construction neared completion. The choice to allude only obliquely to their disappearance after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, via a somber fade in the closing shot, shows welcome restraint in a movie whose final-act achievements erase the shortcomings of its belabored buildup.
Production company: ImageMovers
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy, Benedict Samuel, Ben Schwartz. Steve Valentine
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne, based on Philippe Petit’s book, ‘To Reach the Clouds’
Producers: Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke
Executive producers: Cherylanne Martin, Jacqueline Levine, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Visual effects supervisor: Kevin Baillie
Casting: Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland
PG rating, 123 minutes.