The legend of Philippe Petit loses its magic in Zemeckis' unbalanced retelling.
Real-life stories don’t get much more improbable, inspirational, and death-defying than that of French high-wire artist Philppe Petit, who on August 7, 1974 strung a cable (illegally, with the help of accomplices) between the two towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center and danced for 45 minutes among the clouds for onlookers over 100 stories below. James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man On Wire beautifully recounts the feat, which took an inordinate amount of preparation (training, trespassing, reconnaissance, recruiting) to pull off. Petit and his team’s accomplishment is the stuff of legend, and Marsh’s film is one of my very favorites.
A narrative version of the tale was inevitable, and it now arrives in the form of Robert Zemeckis‘ The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the uncontrollably charismatic Petit. The movie has its merits: the final 30 minutes, in which we see Gordon-Levitt’s Petit preen and twirl in the sky as aggravated police officers try to snatch him from either end of the cable, is an exhilarating piece of filmmaking that you won’t find in Marsh’s documentary and must be watched in a theater, in 3-D. It’s a high note to end on, but the road to get there is so unremarkable and stale that it makes it difficult to exalt the movie as a whole.
The most wonderful thing about Man On Wire was Petit, who told his own story not just with his words, but with his whole body. Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne chose to grab for that same magic by having Gordon-Levitt narrate the film, addressing the audience directly, from atop the Statue of Liberty. They find mixed success: the symbolism of the fantastical New York City image has a nice poetry to it (the statue’s history isn’t insignificant here), but Gordon-Levitt doesn’t come close enough to capturing the vigor and wild ambition of the real-life Petit. To be fair, I’m not sure any actor could.
Most of Gordon-Levitt’s work has been good-to-excellent, but this is one role he just doesn’t seem to fit into completely. His attempt at a French accent is valiant but shoddy, and while he’s certainly energetic and wide-eyed, he doesn’t exude the same raw passion of his real-life counterpart. It’s a good performance and serves the story well, but he’s capable of much, much more.
In flashbacks inspired by the greatest hits of the French New Wave, we find Petit wowing small crowds as a Parisienne street performer. A magic trick involving a sizeable jawbreaker sends him to the dentist’s office, where his life work begins: he sees a picture of the under-construction World Trade Center and in an instant devotes his life to them. He’s got a lover, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and some friends who are willing to help him on his quest, but he seeks additional guidance from a master wire-walker, played by Ben Kingsley.
The movie’s most unbelievable elements—the eponymous walk, the heist-like operation of infiltrating the buildings, Petit’s zany personality—are all true to life. The story is that extraordinary. But Zemeckis’ approach, while inspired, actually dulls the spectacle of the lead-up to the final act. Visually, he views the world through Petit’s child-like eyes, depicting France in a heightened, nostalgic state. Once he gets to New York City, the impossibility of Petit’s dream dawns on him and the movie goes gray in a hurry. It’s a poetic device, but there are flaws in execution. In France, everything feels too Hollywood-y and fluffy, and in New York City, things get a little too drab and depressing. The balance in tone feels off, and a few tweaks in calibration may have evened things out and made for a smoother transition.
If you buy your movie ticket for The Walk, make sure you shell out the extra dough for those infernal 3-D glasses. In this case, they make the movie. The grand finale is absolutely terrifying, especially with the added depth of the 3-D effect. When Gordon-Levitt takes his first step onto that cable hung thousands of feet in the air and the camera points straight down at the tiny streets and buildings below, it’s an incredible feeling. It’s not as touching a moment as you’ll find in Man On Wire or Petit’s written account of the stunt, To Reach the Clouds, but you can’t deny the view.