I have a general rule for biopics and/or historical recreations in film. When the movie ends, I think to myself, “Would that have been better told as a documentary?” Now, one would imagine that the true story of a man walking across a cable between the Twin Towers is an innately cinematic venture. That turns out to be true and false.
The Walk tells this story, which came to be James Marsh’s award-winning doc back Man on Wire in 2008. It’s one of those tales that would seem foolish, if it weren’t the truth. In 1974, just as the World Trade Center was finishing completion, French high-wire artist Phillippe Petit snuck into the building and with an array of accomplices, managed to glide himself between some 110-stories above the streets of New York City. Where Man on Wire was limited to photographs, talking heads and some light recreation, The Walk is a Robert Zemeckis film, with all of the grandeur, special effects and want-to-have awe that his every film attempts to imbue.
It’s a success and a failure. Like the film itself, let us start with the bad. The framing device of Petit, here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, adds little. We regularly cut back to Petit standing on the Statue of Liberty, yammering about his days as a juggler and his love for the NYC. Petit here comes across as zany and unintentionally petulant, an element that infects the film as a whole. While Zemeckis and his fellow screenwriter Christopher Browne skip the need to make Petit especially sympathetic, an admirable thing, they don’t manage to make him an engaging character either. Not helping matters is Gordon-Levitt’s nose-pinched French accent; a constant distraction. As he woos necessary love interest Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) or argues with his mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), it always feels like JGL is playing pretend. The performance, which ought to be big, is a tad too huge.
This isn’t helped by the script. The Walk gives us neither sufficient backstory to make Petit three-dimensional nor a brief glimpse of this daredevil. It strolls along in between the two, making for a Muppet of a man. His relationships are superfluous and him discussing his dream of basically being an anarchistic artist plays frivolously.
Then we get to Stateside and the film blossoms. The thinness of the characters is less vital as we hop into Petit’s efforts to scout the World Trade Center. He photographs entry-points, breaks down shift schedules and determines vital physical details. This venture into caper-territory is breezy, building to the crescendo that the title forecasts.
Here is where Gordon-Levitt excels. His physicality is something to behold, aided by Zemeckis’ staging and the technical wizardry of making every story of WTC alive. Gordon-Levitt pops over and under rails, with the feels-so-real night skyline as his backdrop. Everything seems to fall apart when a random guard appears. Everything seems a waste when an arrow flies a tad-off. Yet, this crew works through it as Zemeckis intimately presents this spectacle with a grace that escape the first chunk of the picture. It’s about the terror of the situation, and how little Petit seems to feel it, until The Walk turns and suddenly the tenor is that of beauty. Petit may appear as a bit of a dip. In this moment, with this act, he makes the impossible real and in that there is hope. That is not an achievement many films grasp for, let alone reach.