There are about 20 nearly perfect minutes in The Walk. Unfortunately, The Walk is 123 minutes long.
It’s probably not too difficult to guess which moments work. The Walk dramatizes Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire performance across a line stretched between the Twin Towers, and in its reenactment of that miraculous feat – directed by Robert Zemeckis with the assistance of Imax and 3-D technology – the movie achieves a tender sort of transcendence. Yet what surrounds it is, for the most part, a misstep.
For some unfathomable reason, Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter, Christopher Browne, choose to structure the movie around scenes of Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrating his own story directly to the camera. He does this while standing on a cheesy set made to look like the Statue of Liberty’s torch, with an unconvincing, CGI New York City skyline in the background. Not only is this far inferior to the impressive level of simulated realism that the walk sequence achieves, it’s also the sort of “tell,” not “show,” technique that’s often the death of fictional cinema.
As for the 3-D, I found it to be a distraction. Thankfully, the technique is not overused during the walk sequence, but elsewhere Zemeckis relies on tired gimmicks to seemingly justify its presence (there’s a juggling shot as old as 1953’s House of Wax). During one scene, Petit is walking on a wire over a pond, and he falls in. The glistening blobs of water are so hyper-“real” that they seem to have splashed all the way from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. As for the CGI recreations of the World Trade Center, they look disconcertingly (especially given 9/11) like just another Marvel skyscraper waiting to be demolished.
The Walk manages to redeem itself with its signature high-wire sequence.
More problems: Ben Kingsley hamming it up as Petit’s circus mentor (Gordon-Levitt has gotten grief for his French accent, but unlike Kingsley, at least he’s consistent). There’s also an epilogue during which each of Petit’s accomplices makes a clunky statement about what his accomplishment “means.” Part of the enduring beauty of Petit’s performance is its mystery, which this denouement promptly deflates.
And yet, despite all of this, The Walk manages to redeem itself with its signature high-wire sequence. Whatever combination of CGI, motion-capture and stunt work was employed, the effect is seamless and enthralling. Gordon-Levitt, a rambunctious presence for much of the film, stills himself with Petit’s first step, and the movie follows his cue. Alan Silvestri’s otherwise inflated score quiets; Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s overactive camera achieves a graceful fluidity. And with a deep breath, we step out into the air.
As the sequence proceeds, there is at once clarity to each footfall and wooziness to the open space that surrounds us. The filmmakers are attuned both to the achievement’s temporal details – including a shuddering shot of a crucial brace that’s been attached upside down – and its exquisite existentiality. When Gordon-Levitt’s Petit lies on his back to gaze up at the void above (not below), it recalls what the real Petit said of the experience in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire: “There was peace and immensity and in the middle of all this madness I suddenly had hope and joy.” Man on Wire told me this; to its ultimate credit, The Walk made me feel it.