Whimsical to a fault, Robert Zemeckis’s high-wire act bobbles but nevertheless sticks the landing.
People ask me “Why do you risk death?” For me, this is life.
As if climbing so high up a mountain your body begins to literally die wasn’t bad enough, this week we have a film featuring an even more daring, foolish, and unrepeatable act. But your enjoyment of The Walk depends largely on your tolerance of two things: heights, even the simulated kind, and an all-out assault of voiceover narration from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the excitable Frenchman at the heart of the story.
I’ll dispense with the so-called “spoilers” right away: in 1974, a high-wire daredevil named Philippe Petit strung a cable between the towers of the World Trade Center, and to the delight and consternation of the masses below, danced back and forth across it for nearly an hour. It’s an unfathomable, inspiring story of madman courage and unshakable artistic integrity, and was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary in 2008’s Man on Wire. (One of my top three favorite movies of that year, and one of my favorite docs ever.) And there’s almost no one better to bring this to stomach-lurching life than Robert Zemeckis, whose filmography is a healthy if polarizing mix of groundbreaking special effects and towering (heh) central performances.
Unfortunately for The Walk, before we finally get to that fateful morning in New York City, we have to spend almost half the film in France getting to know Philippe, as he trains with wire master “Papa Rudy” (Ben Kingsley, truly elevating his material) and his co-conspirators. This is where the patience of the viewer will be most tested. The real-life Philippe Petit, as abundantly evident in his interviews in Man on Wire, is already a bit of cartoon character: he’s every “whimsical Frenchman” cliche rolled up into one, with a motor mouth and a natural flair for the dramatic. He’s an artist and a performer, through and through, and to spend time with him is to spend time with a man who sees the world and its possibilities different than you or I or anyone else we’ve ever met.
And I don’t mean any of that as a criticism at all — he’s likable in the documentary (in small doses), and Gordon-Levitt is certainly likable enough in The Walk. But Zemeckis and his co-writer Christopher Brown seem in love with Philippe, or at least the idea of Philippe, in a way that hurts the film. It begins right in the opening frames, when Gordon-Levitt directly addresses the camera, his accent hovering around the edge of “perfectly plausible… if you’re not French.” He tells us, while pacing inside the torch of the Statue of Liberty (an unusually weak visual effect for Zemeckis) of his life-long dream of hanging his wire between the towers — basically, he tells us what is going to happen. And for the next two hours, he not only continues to tell us what is going to happen, and every thought going through his head, but why it is one of the greatest, artistically pure achievements in all of human history.
That may be true! Let’s say it’s true. And Petit, whose book “To Reach the Clouds” the film is based on, obviously believes it. But in continuously telling instead of showing — “And with this pencil stroke, my fate was sealed,” Petit says at one point, as if we did not know — Zemeckis undercuts the raw, visceral power of his story at almost every turn. It’s Screenwriting 101 to never include voiceover if it’s redundant with your visuals, and Gordon-Levitt’s performance is certainly strong at least on a physical level. He trained for weeks with Petit himself to really walk a wire, and it shows. In the final half-hour, as he does the deed, his performance is all the more remarkable for being dialogue-free… on-screen, anyway. Off-screen, Philippe is still yammering away, telling us things we already know, or can guess through the actions or facial expressions.
That’s a real shame, because if you strip away most (or all) of Philippe breaking the fourth wall, you’re left with something pretty terrific. In the middle stretch it essentially becomes a zippy heist film, as Petit gathers a motley mix of Frenchmen and Americans to help pull off his stunt — or “The Coup,” as he calls it. That includes his surprisingly supportive girlfriend, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), photographer and friend Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), loyal but acrophobic Jean-Francois (César Domboy) and smooth-talking, gum-chewing dual citizen Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale, terrific). They pose as architects to case the buildings, then as construction workers to gain access to the upper floors. The plan is preposterous, and only comes together in a matter of weeks, requiring pure serendipity more than once — it should never work. The late, not-named-Jean additions to their team are unreliable, and at least one of them is stoned. Philippe himself is, let’s say, difficult to work with. And even if his team reaches the roofs and gets their wire set up, he still has to actually pull off the walk.
Fortunately, that is where The Walk is at its best. If nothing else, that final stretch of the film is worth the price of admission on the largest screen possible. In 3D, if you can handle it. I hate heights and was sweating the whole time — not because I worried Philippe would fall, because he obviously wouldn’t, but just because of the stomach-curdling shock of the images. It feels so immediate and real, you can’t help but wonder what must be wrong in Philippe’s mind to even conceive, let alone attempt, such a thing. The film doesn’t give him many moments of self-doubt, save a scene with Annie the night before, and even those are quickly swept away by his brash, irrepressible confidence. But you feel every bend in the cable as he walks it, hear every creak, and look through your fingers at the 110-story drop below. It’s a powerful, dizzying experience, even if Zemeckis makes blunders with the actual storytelling.
That is ultimately why I recommend The Walk. The film may find its subject a little too adorable, but the technical wizardry of its nervy climax fully lives up to Petit’s boasting. In 1974, he made the impossible possible. Zemeckis makes us believe it. And with its surprisingly profound final moments, you’ll leave the theater devastated that it can never happen again.