It’s impossible to watch The Walk without thinking about James Marsh’s 2008 film Man on Wire. The Academy Award-winning documentary chronicled French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s high-wire act between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Through interviews, archival footage, dramatizations, and clever editing, Marsh allows the events to play out in thrilling fashion, as if Petit’s whimsical art crime was a jewel heist.
It’s also difficult for me to watch The Walk without thinking about Colum McCann’s gorgeous 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin, a panoramic view of New York City featuring multiple protagonists and taking place on the same day as Petit’s WTC high-wire act.
To Robert Zemeckis’ credit, he’d been developing The Walk on his own for the last decade, well before Marsh and McCann’s works came out; Zemeckis had envisioned his film to be a 3D spectacle that captured the dizzying experience of Petit’s impossible walk.
But even if Man on Wire and Let the Great World Spin didn’t exist, The Walk would still be a schmaltzy disappointment.
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Director: Robert Zemeckis
Release Date: September 30, 2015 (IMAX); October 9, 2015 (wide)
Throughout The Walk, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his associates speak of artists as anarchists. Artists shake things up, cause people to reconsider the world around them, do things because they are beautiful and new. Yet these statements about the anarchic qualities of artists and their art feel like a form of unintentional self-indictment. The Walk is so painfully conventional, a shiny Hollywood product that wants to inspire its audience to dream big while simultaneously suffering from a deficit of imagination.
The biopic cliches are everywhere. While the events in France may be true to Petit’s life, Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne make them feel like part of a screenplay checklist: tightrope origin story (check), disowned by parents (check), finds begrudging mentor (check, Sir Ben Kingsley), finds love interest (check, Charlotte Le Bon), establish flaw(s) to be overcome in film’s third act (check), fails first attempt at vocation (check) only to triumph immediately after (check), mentor becomes father figure (check). Because these moments feel so perfunctory and familiar rather than lived-in, the first half of The Walk drags.
The meet-cute between Philippe and Annie is particularly embarrassing—there’s mime involved, and also rain (check). They go from adversaries to lovers bathed in candlelight (check) over the course of an afternoon. But Annie isn’t given much to do throughout the rest of the film. She’s just there to be Philippe’s girlfriend. In another act of unintentional self-indictment, Annie tells Philippe that she’s here to help him realize his dream, but she ultimately has to find a dream of her own. The film’s finale is 110 stories in the air, but The Walk can’t even get over the low hurdle of the Bechdel test. Yet this isn’t just Annie’s plight. Most of the side characters in the film are generally devoid of personality; they are Philippe’s props. Philippe comes across as an angry narcissistic madman in The Walk rather than a charismatic madman, and it’s unclear why anyone would want to work with him the way he’s written in this film.
Once The Walk winds up in New York, the movie picks up the pace and finally becomes enjoyable. Rather than a schlocky, inspirational biopic, the film goes into heist-movie mode. The plan starts to come together, and rhythm becomes brisk, and the movie has an enjoyable breeziness to it. Heist-mode is brief, but it’s a welcome reprieve from the biopic stuff, and it sets up the big walk along the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, there are moments of heightened artificial drama (e.g., one of Philippe’s friends is extremeley acrophobic).
The walk itself is good as a set piece but not all that great. For all the hype about the use of 3D, Zemeckis never exploits image depth to its fullest ability. Staring down from the towers in 3D creates an illusion of height, that’s true, but it felt to me like 20 feet (maybe) rather than 1,350 feet. There’s little sense of weight or gravity to this world; it’s all just lightness. It doesn’t help that the towers, the sky, and the city below all feel like CG. Actual photos taken of Petit’s walk show a New York that’s cool and gray-toned, muted, in the dawn. Zemeckis instead bathes the towers and the digital cityscape in gold and pink hues. The eye notices; the real world is not a Thomas Kinkade painting.
The coda to The Walk is a series of uncomfortable allusions to 9/11 that feel cheap and exploitative, even borderline offensive. At one point someone praises Philippe for giving the buildings a soul and making people love The Twin Towers, and they look up longingly into the night sky. It’s a cringeworthy attempt to earn your tears. Gordon-Levitt’s narration throughout the film doesn’t help matters. He speaks French like Inspector Clouseau, situated atop the torch of The Statute of Liberty with the World Trade Center visible in the skyline behind him. It’s CG, it’s garish, it’s surprisingly chintzy, though the worst case of bathos may be a certain moment in the movie that involves a CG bird.
In real life there’s no actual film footage of Philippe Petit’s walk along The Twin Towers. This was likely the impetus for The Walk. It’s admirable that Zemeckis would want to re-create a singular event, but I can’t help but feel like this is also the reason the event shouldn’t be recreated on film. In Man on Wire, Marsh shows stills of the moment accompanied by the quiet, melancholy beauty of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1.” (In The Walk, we hear Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” which has never sounded more cliched.) In Let the Great World Spin, McCann recreates the New York of 1974 from different characters and perspectives. Using Petit’s singular act, Marsh and McCann invite their viewers/readers to co-create the event in their minds—to be up with Petit, or below watching a dot in the sky from the ground.
At no point during The Walk‘s major set piece did I think, “It feels like I’m there” or “I wish I was there.” Zemeckis doesn’t give any room for the audience’s imagination or co-authorship. There is more danger and beauty in a still photo of Petit on a wire than the whole of The Walk‘s recreation of the moment. That might speak to the power of Petit’s actual work of art.