In The Walk, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit, the French street performer who, in 1974, illegally walked a high wire suspended between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The buildings weren’t quite finished and Petit’s actions were intended as a love letter to the structure, as much as an attention getting, life-defining act. Since Robert Zemeckis is the film’s director, it can be safely be assumed that only the best visual trickery will be used to recreate those hair raising steps into the sky.
I love Zemeckis’ movies. This is the man who gave us (among my favorites) the Back to the Future trilogy, Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Polar Express, What Lies Beneath, Forrest Gump, Death Becomes Her, Contact and Flight. Zemeckis is a protégé of Steven Spielberg, shares James Cameron’s brilliance at designing and creating the greatest special effects necessary to finalize his vision and makes films that are meticulously crafted but anchored by great performances. But with The Walk, Zemeckis applies far too many visual tricks–to the point of distraction–and centers an odd story around a character who left me cold.
The early scenes, showing Petit as a gifted (if temperamental) street performer feel off. Zemeckis doesn’t have a feel for the “mod” period and, in scenes that are in black and white but have smatterings of color, he’s overusing his considerable digital paintbrush.
Gordon-Levitt is a great actor but the character is ridiculous and doesn’t bring out the best in him. In addition to a consistent but cumbersome French accent, Gordon-Levitt wears blue contact lenses and what looks exactly like Julia Roberts’ Tinkerbell wig from Hook. Whereas Johnny Depp’s attention-getting make-up in Black Mass was outshined by the force and depth he brought to his role, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t have many layers here to play, other than that of a “wacky Frenchman.” Petit speaks highly of his artistry and his obsession at pulling off the Twin Towers stunt but Petit’s persona is one dimensional. Even with Ben Kingsley in a supporting role, the side characters also come across as broad caricatures.
Not helping matters is having Petit narrate the film atop of the Statue of Liberty torch, with the Twin Towers in the background. Matthew Broderick’s addressing the audience in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is still the only film that made this work. The Walk opens with this corny establishing device and constantly cuts back to it, occasionally breaking the tension and momentum.
The story hinges on a single act, making for a long running time, building too slowly to get to one scene. Once we get to the big set piece, Zemeckis showcases some extraordinary visual effects to convey Petit’s high wire act 100 stories above New York City. It’s wonderful seeing The Twin Towers, both the exteriors and interiors, recreated so meticulously. Yet, rather than thrills or suspense, the strongest quality from this sequence is that it gave me a sensation of vertigo. I had to keep looking at the roof of the theater, reminding myself I wasn’t suspended atop a building. I don’t mean this as a compliment–the scene made me queasy and I couldn’t wait for the movie to end.
The Walk is comparable to Spielberg’s The Terminal, in that it suffers from a wobbly tone, can’t balance darkness and whimsy and, despite how well it’s made, feels from start to finish like an admirable botch. The film’s irredeemable moment comes when Petit is lying on the high wire and spots a bird flying by, which he takes as an ominous sign. The overly CGI’d bird (complete with red, judgmental eyes) and Petit’s commentary (“zee baird wuz warning me!”) are absurd. What does work, from start to finish, is the 2008 documentary on Petit, Man on Wire. In every way, it’s preferable to The Walk.