On August 7, 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit shocked New York City by spending 45 minutes walking back and forth on a wire illegally suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. It was a pivotal moment in the buildings’ history and made Petit something of a legend in the city. His artistic achievement was most recently chronicled in James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.” Now, Robert Zemeckis has brought Petit’s story to screens with mixed results in the new narrative endeavor, “The Walk.”
Zemeckis is no stranger to 3D or IMAX, where the movie is truly meant to be seen, having spent a good deal of the past 15 years directing animated motion capture films such as “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol.” And, truth be told, “The Walk” works best when Zemeckis is having fun chronicling Petits aerial escapades whether he’s only a 50 feet or so off the ground or 110 stories into the sky. There is a wealth of narrative storylines and character conflicts at play, but the movie’s attempts at fashioning an intriguing story around those events is awkward at best.
What is most disappointing is the film’s framing device which finds an imaginary Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) standing on the torch balcony of the Statue of Liberty as he breaks the fourth wall with a narration technique that speaks directly to the viewer and is shockingly lazy for Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Christopher Browne. Zemeckis has used narration before, most notably in “Forest Gump,” but this feels like something out of a Disneyland production where the animatronic robots piece different parts of history together. It’s as though Zemeckis and Browne couldn’t find a way to tell this somewhat straightforward story without having their fictional Petit appear every 10 minutes or so to explain what happened next. Even the triumphant walk itself needs Petit’s voiceover to convey the emotions of what he’s thinking on the wire. You have to assume dumbing down the proceedings to an elementary school child level was the only way Zemeckis and the studio though audiences would understand what’s transpiring on screen.
The screenplay is also problematic because this simplistic approach means so many obvious questions about Petit’s life remain unanswered. The idea that he funded this endeavor let alone was able to get from Paris to New York from earning tips as a street performer is never fully explained. He wears a New York University t-shirt during a few of the NYC scenes so are we to assume he was there as a student? There’s nothing wrong with skipping over numerous historical details of Petit’s life, but wouldn’t it have made sense to at least reference the fact he crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge or walked a tightrope for Pablo Picasso’s 90th Birthday celebration years before? The only really smart aspect of the script is how it explains why all these French characters are constantly speaking English and that’s played out more for laughs than anything else.
Levitt, who either has an unfortunate haircut, wig or combination of the two, is so omnipresent with his narration that you soon begin to forget how bad his French accent is and that his portrayal of Petit borders on caricature. Granted, Petit is quite the character in real life, but Levitt finds it hard to give him depth in this fantasyland world Zemeckis has fashioned. Towards the end of the picture there are at least two moments when members of the team Petit recruits to help him with the walk refer to him as “crazy.” Neither Zemeckis nor Levitt truly hint at this until a comical, but historically true moment during the wire rigging on the towers. Avoiding this unhinged aspect of Petit’s personality only prevents Levitt from giving his character any depth whatsoever.
When the script and tone falters Zemeckis’ visual talents do their best to make up for it. You’ll be hard pressed to find any motion picture where the Twin Towers have been so lovingly and accurately portrayed as they are here. The 3D element of the film and some expert sound design also does a superb job of capturing the terrifying heights at the top of the towers (as a college student this pundit was actually afraid to leave the observation deck and walk on the roof). Moreover, while Petit’s actual performance between the towers has been greatly truncated, this is the only sequence of the film where Zemeckis really does his subject justice.
The depiction of the walk itself is beautiful and one of the few times you feel as though you’re watching something special. And, for a few minutes, you forget the movie’s faults and enjoy the cinematic experience. An experience that inevitably tugs at the heartstrings because history has tragically assured us that Petit’s feat can never be duplicated again.
“The Walk” opens nationwide on Oct. 9.