In 2008 a fascinating documentary called “Man on Wire” told the story of French tightrope artist Philippe Petit and his 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. Petit’s dream walk required an elaborate covert operation to both setup and perform the act. He extended his steel cable from the roof of one tower to the other – 138 feet across and a quarter mile above the ground. He then performed for an astonishing 45 minutes, crossing over eight times, all with no safety harness.
The documentary was based on Petit’s autobiography “To Reach the Clouds”. “The Walk” is taken from the same book but put in a more dramatic form. Robert Zemeckis directs and co-writes this unusual biopic that presents itself as a documentary with flashbacks. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s boyish charms make him a good fit to play Petit. We spend time with him as a struggling teenage street performer and then later as an ambitious twentysomething staging a death-defying feat.
Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne structure their film almost like a testimonial and motivational speech. Gordon-Levitt’s Petit is basically telling us his story while standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty with the New York City skyline nestled in the background. Stylistically, it’s an odd choice.
The film spends a lot of time on Petit’s early struggles in Paris. Some of the backstory is interesting such as his prickly relationship with circus leader and future mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) as well as his initial efforts to become a high-wire artist. There is also a romance between Petit and a street musician named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). It’s a bit undercooked, but Gordon-Levitt and Le Bon sell it thanks to a charming chemistry. Other bits of backstory don’t work as well. For example a soured relationship between Petit and his Army pilot father is shoehorned in and is terribly underdeveloped.
Once the story shifts to New York City it takes on a heist film vibe. Petit begins planning his “coup” which requires a host of accomplices. The film spends a fair amount of time putting the group together but few of these people are given much meaningful to do. James Badge Dale, armed with charisma and one funky hairdo, is the most fun of lot. They all work together to set up every detail of the wild and elaborate plan.
Through all of the character history and careful planning the narrative sometimes sputters in its attempt to maintain a crisp pacing. But once it comes time for the big act “The Walk” is every bit as high-tension and breathtaking as you would expect. I didn’t see the film in big screen 3D or IMAX yet I still felt the amazement, lightheadedness, and nervous energy brought on by the film’s special effects wizardry.
Gordon-Levitt’s performance is pretty remarkable too. Not only did he learn tightrope walking from Philippe Petit himself, he also learned the French language and tirelessly worked on his accent with teachers and several French cast members. He’s incredibly committed and becomes the head salesman in this story of following your dreams no matter how impossible they may seem. There are lulls that hurt that message, but the film’s grand visual finale is an eye-popping treat.
VERDICT – 3 STARS