Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale
Rating: * * * (out of 5)
The thirty-odd-minute sequence of the actual walk – if that non-descript word is adequate to describe Philippe Petit’s still-scarcely believable 1974 tightrope balancing act between New York’s World Trade Center skyscrapers – in The Walk elicits palpitations and sweaty palms like no other movie this year (particularly if viewed in vertiginous 3D IMAX). But far too much of the preceding hour and a half (along with those climactic moments replete with the film’s worst tendencies) only has you wringing your hands in frustration.
This is a movie about a spirit of daring and act of such breathtaking audacity that can – indeed, must – speak for itself through cinema’s unique audio-visual potency. And, true to form, director Robert Zemeckis uses every trick in his huge VFX playbook to bring Petit’s feat (and the twin towers) back to life. So why, then, overlay these dazzling visuals with incessant, redundant chatter? Petit’s non-stop voiceover, delivered in distracting “Fronch’ accent by a decidedly non-Francophone Josep Gordon-Levitt, constantly tells you everything he’s doing, seeing and feeling. At the self-same time Zemeckis shows us. Again and again. This does more than anchor the movie from the opening scene; when the film should soar, it drags it down, leaving a story innately about transcendence resolutely earthbound.
It’s doubly disappointing to see – or rather, hear – this from Zemeckis, whose track record with kinetic set pieces (the respective plane crashes in Cast Away and Flight to name but two) is impeccable. Watch again the opening couple of minutes of his first masterpiece, Back to the Future, for a lesson is telling a story and eating up exposition through images. Yet somehow this gifted visual storyteller has been blindsided here, not merely propping up his movie with a crutch it doesn’t need, but one that actively plays to its weakness – its lead actor’s vocals. If that weren’t enough, Gordon-Levitt, a fine actor, also has the glassy-eyed look and synthetic hair reminiscent of the ‘uncanny valley’ apparitions in Zemeckis’s motion-capture features. Never mind The Polar Express, here a usually animated performer seems to operate under a glaze of glacial inexpressiveness.
This might be overly harsh on a film that’s fleet of foot, consistently watchable and, in its final act, much more than that. It’s also an unabashed, nostalgic valentine to New York and iconic buildings that tragically became symbols for a warped nihilism. Structured as the heist that it is, Petit and his crew’s mission to infiltrate the work-in-progress South Tower has the same flippant cool of an Ocean’s Eleven caper and its stranger-than-fiction charms are off-kilter enough to make it stand out. But nothing changes the fact that, viewed with the sound off, it would work even better. The irony is that, James Marsh’s excellent, Oscar-winning documentary about Petit’s stunt, Man On Wire, lacks the one selling point The Walk boasts: a you-are-there recreation of the walk itself. And yet, of the two, it’s the documentary that emotionally puts us up alongside its sky walker and allows us the space to imagine not just his, but our own moment, or life, up on the wire. That, ultimately, was Philippe Petit’s ambition. It’s a shame it’s not also Zemeckis’s.