The amazing story of French high-wire artiste Philippe Petit is damn near impossible to screw up. It’s simply that incredible, such a sterling example of the feats human beings are physically and mentally capable of. To say his story is perfectly made for the cinematic experience would be an understatement, and it made for a great documentary in James Marsh’s Oscar-nominated “Man on Wire” just a few years ago. Robert Zemeckis is a director known as a standard-bearer in the field of visual effects but little else, and he very nearly screwed up Petit’s triumphant feat with his 3D IMAX spectacle, “The Walk”. It’s a film that struggles to find its balance for far too long, but when it does the results are transcendent.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes on the role and French accent of Petit, a brash, arrogant tightrope walker whose dream is probably a lot bigger than yours. In 1974 Petit accomplished the unimaginable feat of walking a high-wire across the World Trade Center Towers. That’s 110 stories up, in the middle of bustling New York City at a time when the people weren’t so fond of those two gigantic skyscrapers. But that’s the end of the story, and the film actually begins much earlier with Petit as a street performer struggling to get by despite his overwhelming ability and confidence. An aggravating framing sequence has Petit, sitting atop the Statue of Liberty no less, narrating each step of his journey. It slows down what is already a burdensome origin in which he has a meet-cute with fellow entertainer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and gets tightrope-walking tips from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). Always looking for a new place to hang his wire, Petit discovers his incredible life’s dream when he chances on a magazine article about the Twin Towers.
What made “Man on Wire” such an unforgettable documentary was that it maintained all of the hallmarks of a great heist movie. There were teams assembled with members of various professions and strengths, all collaborators in Petit’s mad and very illegal scheme. That fear of getting caught and going to jail was a very real thing, but Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne fail to capture that anxious energy. Instead the tone lacks any seriousness in the planning stages, and Petit’s co-conspirators aren’t given much to do. That’s a shame when the group consists of talented actors like Le Bon, Kingsley, James Badge Dale, and Ben Schwartz. Levitt does a good job capturing Petit’s spirited, mercurial temperament, although his French accent takes some getting used to.
The mood shifts noticeably once Petit arrives in the U.S., but the film doesn’t actually begin to soar until he’s up on the Tower roof. The film evolves into something glorious, as if Zemeckis deliberately kept the earlier stuff a little flat so as to make the actual walk across the wire truly special. This is one case where it’s absolutely essential to pay the extra money for 3D, as you’ll be mesmerized by the dizzying, vertigo-inducing heights. With every step more dangerous than the last, every one of Petit’s theatrical flourishes an act of pure daring, this is as terrifying and exhilarating as movies get. The greatest compliment that one can give Zemeckis is that his recreation of Petit’s performance is as thrilling as what we saw in “Man on Wire”. For a while you totally forget this is a visual effects creation and that Levitt is actually quite safe. You can’t help but tremble with every move, and have your breath taken away with every sweeping panoramic view of the city below.
What’s lacking is Petit’s motivation, or the motivation in others to support him on what must have looked like a fool’s errand. There just doesn’t appear to be much interest in the inspiration behind Petit’s feat, just the feat itself. In that case “The Walk” is every bit like a showman who dares to dazzle the audience but won’t bore them with the details.