Why would the story of Philippe Petit’s criminal and magnificent wire-walk at the top of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center need to be told again when we already have James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire? The answer proposed by Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk is that a Hollywood studio budget can allow him to recreate the death-defying stunt in magnificent 3D. And truth be told, there is no denying that the movie’s wire-walking climax is a truly outstanding sequence. I’m particularly susceptible to heights (deathly afraid of them), but this 110 stories-high walk, as rendered by Zemeckis and his team, will provide enough tension to alarm even the bravest of daredevils. It’s truly a shame, then, that such an outstanding sequences would be surrounded by ninety minutes of unacceptably bad filmmaking.
According to its closing credits, The Walk is based exclusively on Petit’s autobiographical book To Reach the Clouds, which is ironic considering its structure is so similar to that of Man on Wire. It opens with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays Petit) talking directly to the camera from atop the Statue of Liberty, a device that I suspect is meant to represent him warming up the audience like he would a group of people gathered to watch him perform on a street corner, but does feel an awful lot like documentary narration. Why stick so close to Man on Wire‘s aesthetics when you already have to convince people there is room in this world for two movies on the same subject?
I don’t think the similarities are fueled by any kind of insincere desire to mine elements that worked so well for the documentary, but by sheer incompetence. The Walk tells Petit’s story in the most -for the lack of a better term- basic way it possibly can. By the fifteen minute mark, the movie has already has allowed itself the three weakest story-telling devices a movie could possibly indulge in: framing device, narration, and flashback. Three devices that can certainly be used to great effect, but rarely are (a great example of framing device and narration working beautifully would be The Grand Budapest Hotel).
The Walk uses these devices in the most obvious ways imaginable. Truly, the reason why its first hour is so hard to sit through is the way it runs Petit’s fascination for the tightrope through the assembly line of inspirational stories about eccentric and passionate heroes, giving him a cute love interest (Charlotte Le Bon) and a stern and quirky mentor (Ben Kingsley). The story beats are so familiar you feel you’ve already seen this movie even as you’re watching it, and the aesthetics equally obvious. Zemeckis’s version of France is underscored by romantic French covers of American pop songs, and his New York by tough ’70s rock.
Zemeckis leaves no room for interpretation, everything that can be said will be said, and everything that is said should be taken at face value. This is most obvious in Philippe’s narration, which drains the life out of almost every visual choice based by the movie. There are some suggestive images whose beauty is simply ruined by the excessive over-explanation of the voice-over. The movie is so inelegant that at one point, the very same piece of information is given twice -once by a character, once by narration- within the span of literally one minute. Even the choices that are supposed to be subtle scream out their purpose. When Philippe flies to New York to see the Twin Towers for the first time, for example, the soundtrack plays a song that goes “take me higher and higher”.
Zemeckis’s hand can only produce broad strokes. Thus, the element that could most probably have redeemed the enterprise ends up being the one that suffers the most in comparison to Man on Wire: the characterization of Petit himself. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a charismatic actor, and his French accent as Petit isn’t nearly as bad as some people would have you believe. The problem is that Petit himself is an incredibly oversized character, whose fervent way of speaking can only be pulled off by the man himself. The words that come off as poetic when spoken by the man himself in the documentary become pure nonsense when spoken by Gordon-Levitt. To be fair, I don’t think any actor could have succeeded at the task.
I’m not a huge Man on Wire fan, but that movie seems to have found exactly the right way to tell this story. Large part of the documentary’s appeal is discovering the extravagant character that is Petit, and realizing how uniquely obsessed he is with his stunts. There are certain characters whose charisma can’t be recreated. The Walk succeeds at capturing the death defying magic of Petit’s greatest stunt, but it fails to capture the essence of the man walking on the wire. For Petit, there was no reason to walk between the towers except that they were there. It’s this sense of freedom that The Walk, trapped by the constrictions of overly literal narrative cinema, simply can’t capture.
Grade: 5 out of 10.