Silver Screen: The Walk ***
The only compelling reason to see The Walk is for the walk itself.
Otherwise, why not just watch James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, in which the actual guy who walked a highwire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center tells the story in his own words?
Both movies employ the same narrative device: the ebullient French performance artist Philippe Petit gushing with enthusiasm and self-satisfaction about the improbable achievement of his strange, perilous dream. Petit is more than savvy and charismatic enough to represent himself.
In director Robert Zemeckis’s dramatization of those same events, Joseph Gordon-Levitt strives to synthesize that mischievous energy. He mostly succeeds, too, although it’s as superfluous as a photocopied recreation of a book you already own.
Except there is the trouble of Gordon-Levitt’s pretty atrocious French accent, which in its lower registers conjures Pepé Le Pew— I was half-expecting him to paint a white stripe on a black cat’s back and chase it around the Eiffel Tower. The accent shifts and sloshes around like an underfilled waterbed, and in its more strained moments comes to sound like an actual Frenchman doing a bad impersonation of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
But when at last the fictionalized Petit steps into the space between the buildings, the effect is mesmerizing. It’s a lot of things, actually: a gorgeous metropolitan panorama, a vertiginous step to the edge of the void, Zen-simple transcendence of humanity, a daredevil stunt turned to art on a grand scale.
This is what The Walk can do that Man on Wire cannot. In the documentary, the feeling of being perched on a metal string 110 stories in the air is a secret Petit gets to keep to himself. In Zemeckis’s retelling, the audience shares in the experience. It’s marvelous, and a terrific application of special effects. In an era when suspension of disbelief has itself been suspended, when digitized superheroes and dragons barely raise eyebrows, Zemeckis inspires real awe using the same tools to render something very real. It’s a feat. Maybe not quite the equivalent of Petit’s achievement, but it’s a dazzling sight to behold for fifteen or so minutes— an eternity, it seems, out there for Gordon-Levitt.
The trouble is the rest of the movie, which is not at all bad, just a bit of preshow tedium you must endure before the grand finale. It turns out to be a lot like an old ABC Wide World of Sports special where Evel Knievel jumps his motorbike over the Snake River Canyon. The preshow hoopla is just there to fill time because it’s impossible to sell the tense seconds of the actual stunt separately.
Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter Christopher Browne stick to a classic biopic template. There’s a moment of epiphany (in a dentist’s office, no less), a mentor (a curmudgeonly circus performer played by Ben Kingsley), a couple of training montages, and a special girl (Charlotte Le Bon as Petit’s girlfriend and conspirator, Annie). Most of it is true, by the way, supported by multiple sources in Marsh’s documentary. But in this humdrum retelling, the events loose the vivacity of their veracity.
The Walk comes together when it takes the form of a heist picture. When Petit realized his dream, the towers were still under construction. To slip all of his equipment past security, he needed a gang of cohorts. When the assembled crew (including James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Steve Valentine) starts working out the details of the scheme, the movie comes to life for the first time and gathers momentum during the leadup to the money shot.
So why all the fiddling around beforehand? There’s a movie’s worth of excitement in the second half, but Zemeckis is too bound up by convention to risk straying from the biopic format. That’s the story of his increasingly risk-averse career— moments of significant innovation pitted against the impulse to play it up the middle. Here again he risks dullness when he drifts toward the comforting familiarity of the center, but overcomes it in the end with a dazzling display.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.