With The Walk, director Robert Zemekis brings the story of Phillippe Petit which has already captivated audiences via the acclaimed documentary Man On Wire back to the big screen in a narrative format, with all the wow factor of IMAX. It’s a spectacle celebration of spectacle with no less a talent than Joseph Gordon Levitt at the center.
For many, Phillippe Petit’s story as the man so driven and audacious he would illegally string a high wire between the Twin Towers and walk it is familiar. The real interest then lies in Petit’s character and what went into his great “Coup” as he calls it, and of course in the experience of seeing the world as he sees it from his wire.
Joseph Gordon Levitt is always interesting to watch and his turn in The Walk is no different. As Petit he dictates the entire story to us, perched atop the Statue of Liberty. Subtle makeup, colored contacts, a French accent and Levitt’s own chameleonic ability leave him quite transformed though physically he looks much the same as he always does. He gives Petit the pining obsession, wild passion and recklessness we often see in portrayals of tortured artists and athletes on screens. The film furthers this perspective by frequently making use of stylistic treatments — sequences in black and white with pops of color only where Phillippe is focused, or transforming reality to mirror the fantastical visions he describes. It is in this area that the film is most successful and interesting.
The caper element of the plot, Petit’s discovery of and subsequent obsession with the Towers pales somewhat by comparison. There are some highly interesting details to be sure, but the tension you might anticipate isn’t there – perhaps it’s that Petit himself is so sure this is his destiny and everything must work. His love of the Towers is palpable, as is his desire and his confidence.
That Petit is certain this is all a great idea does not prevent the height and danger from resonating, particularly when viewed on a screen that is exceedingly tall itself. The Walk engages a little too giddily in 3D with shots of arrows zipping and wires falling at the crowd. These elements feel more appropriate for jump scares and detract from the overwhelming scale and grandeur of the thing itself. However, those shots that give us perspective and depth are as stunning as you would expect – the whole of New York sprawled out ahead and nothing but air and wire below.
These moments of introspection and stunning beauty are the standouts in The Walk. While the caper elements don’t equal them, they do more than enough to get you from point a to point b.
The Walk is opening for an initial run exclusively in IMAX theaters, the better to relate Petit’s worldview to well, the world.