Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley and Charlotte Le Bon
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date:October 9th
Before the purists start sharpening their pitchforks and demanding to know why this film even exists when the perfectly fantastic Man on Wire is already a thing, please remember that to some audience members, sitting down to watch a documentary is akin to watching something with subtitles or having to read the book before the movie comes out. Hollywood has been banking on these people for decades, who aren’t heathens or uncultured, they probably just know what they like, and that’s absolutely fine. Plus, having a sensational visualist like Robert Zemeckis at the helm can only be a good thing considering the eye-popping potential this story possesses. Optimism, as misplaced as it so often can be, is a dangerous thing, but if anyone could tell this story well, it was going to be Zemeckis. And then the movie starts…
Right off the bat, The Walk is difficult to like. Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears at the top of the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline – with the Twin Towers still present – a constant behind him, as he talks directly to the audience in a French accent that feels less Acting School and more Clown College. Presenting the story to us like a magician warming up his audience before pulling a rabbit from his hat, this version of Phillippe Petit accurately accounts for the real-life person’s well-documented showmanship, narcissism and over-inflated ego, all of which helps develop him into a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, but also one who while traversing on the high-wire will have you muttering to yourself “Fall… Fall…”
There are quite a few similarities between The Walk and Zemeckis’ previous live-action outing, Flight. We’ve got a generally unlikeable lead male played by a well-liked actor, and we’re given an insight into that man’s life as it’s pinned to a vertiginous, breath-taking set-piece. Whereas Flight kicked off with its plane-crash scene and Denzel Washington was forced to try to keep us on his side in the aftermath, The Walk wisely pushes it’s big raison d’être to the end of the movie, but fails to get us invested by the time we get there.
It’s over an hour before Petit and his cohorts get to New York to perform their “artwork” as they call it, with everything up until that point consisting of Gordon-Levitt having conversations with Ben Kingsley’s wise, wizened circus leader and Charlotte Le Bon as a poorly-written love-interest about why he simply must do this stunt. “But why?,” someone understandingly enquires. “Because it is my dream!,” Gordon-Levitt replies, echoing Everest’s biggest problem of never fully unravelling the reasoning behind risking one’s life, except now we’ve got the add-ons of breaking and entering, vandalism and the lack of safety-nets, metaphorical or otherwise.
When we do finally get to Manhattan, the attention is spread out away from Petit and given a little more time to some of his team-mates (including James Badge Dale who does a better job of nailing the French accent than JGL, btw), and the movie finally becomes what it should have been all-along: a heist. Even then, some aspects are simply glossed over (“How did you get these security badges?” “Don’t worry about it.”), but when we do get to roof, Zemeckis promptly wrings every last drop of vertigo-inducing tension he possibly can from Petit’s tightrope act on the 110th floor.
By then though it feels like too little too late, plus there aren’t many tricks left to pull after a similar scene of Petit walking across the roof of the Notre Dame took place ninety minutes earlier in the movie. With no-one to root for, the only real emotional reaction is that final image of the Twin Towers, glistening in the sun, representing and celebrating the idea that dreams can become a reality. The comparison to Petit’s achievement is an obvious one, but all the cynicism in the world can’t belittle Zemeckis for making it.
There’s a very good piece of screenwriting advice given to first-time writers; Is this the most interesting part of your protagonist’s life, and if not, why aren’t you telling us that part instead? In other words, cut to the chase. Spending over an hour with an unlikeable man telling us a fairly unremarkable version of his life story was a huge mistake when we’ve got the world’s tallest buildings to break into and set up a tightrope across. Zemeckis, the man behind Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, seems to have forgotten how to cut to the chase. This was the man who used to force other directors keep up with his sprinting pace, and now he’s settling for The Walk.