The Walk (2015)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis has been a pretty consistent director for the last 30 years. Movies like “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Flight” are some of his best, while movies like “Death Becomes Her” and “A Christmas Carol” will go down as a couple of his unfortunate blunders. But what about the showy, visually magical adventure “The Walk”? In what camp will the future place Zemeckis’s latest film?
When amateur wire-walker Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sees a perfect place to hang his wire, he won’t stop until he walks across the void. So when the World Trade Center towers in New York City neared the end of construction in 1974, Petit knew what he had to do. But Petit (as you might have guessed) hails from France. So he gathers his closest companions, all of them recent acquaintances, and takes them with him to New York. Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) was the official photographer. Albert (Ben Schwartz) became Petit’s right-hand man, helping him on the South Tower as Petit prepared his walk. Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine) was the inside man, working on the 82nd floor of the North Tower. And Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) was Petit’s new girlfriend and confidante on his long-awaited dream. But as the time draws near, obstacles (the law not the least of them) threaten to delay the walk or halt it altogether.
In 2009, director James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”) won an Oscar for his exhilarating documentary “Man on Wire,” which included extensive interviews with Petit and some of his accomplices, photographs of his daring stunt, and recreations of some of his preparations for the walk. It was a complete success. The real Petit is a bubbly, charismatic personality. He commands the screen more than any Hollywood star could dream of. His larger-than-life personality made his story come to life. After “Man on Wire,” any other movie seemed completely unnecessary. Especially not a slightly fictionalized account starring a pale Joseph Gordon-Levitt with an atrocious French accent. I still think that. “The Walk” does show what the dangerous feat may have looked like by recreating ‘70s NYC and using a lot of effects. But it tells you nothing that “Man on Wire” doesn’t already. So skip the theaters and go watch “Man on Wire” on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Sure, yes, Zemeckis’s film is a visual marvel. It puts us 110 stories high on top of the tallest building in the world, looking at the vast landscape of NYC. The visual effects team got a real workout editing “The Walk.” The 17-minute wore-walking scene is extremely well-done. But after the dazzle of IMAX 3D wears off, what’s left? A theatrical cast with bushy mustaches and aviators overdoing the 1970s shtick. A script that somehow feels like it’s speeding through Petit’s story, even though it’s a full 30 minutes longer than the documentary. Tacky narration that means we hear JGL’s horrific accent even when we don’t see his messy six-year-old boy haircut and tight black turtle neck. (To be fair, this is what Petit looks and sounds like. But it’s distracting coming from JGL. A French actor would have been more effective.)
The showy effects and quirky narrative style can’t cover for a dull movie. At one point, Ben Kingsley (playing Petit’s Czech mentor, veteran wire walker Papa Rudy), tells Petit: “That was terrible, you’re doing too much… Stop trying so hard.” Exactly. I feel the same way about “The Walk.”