Release Date: October 9th, 2015 (UK & US)
Genre: Adventure; Biography; Drama
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley
In 1896 the Lumière brothers screened one of their debut films, L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat. Legend mischievously has it that audience members, shocked by the sight of a steam locomotive moving towards them, fled from the vicinity with vigour. It’s one of those historic stories draped in romanticism that you desperately want to believe, and films such as The Walk give credence to stories such as those. The Walk isn’t as authentic as James Marsh’s brilliant Man on Wire, but then that documentary never dangled us 1,350 feet above Lower Manhattan.
Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not believe in “getting a permit”. He can say that again. After biting into a sugary sweet, the French street performer scuttles over to his local dentist and then moans about having to struggle through two hours of toothache as he waits for an appointment. He ain’t the only one squirming for two hours; if you don’t get along especially well with heights, things might get a bit tetchy. Petit’s pain-stricken time at the dentist acts as a catalyst for what he would later call the “artistic coup of the century”: a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.
But before we can ascend, there is stuff to do. Narrative, or set-up, or something. The visuals down on ground level are oddly ropey. It’s as if the film is trying to mix a Toy Story-esque texture with real life, and it doesn’t quite work. The objective is clear and sort of understandable: to evoke a fairy tale quality that supports Petit’s impossible task, one bearing mythical connotations. But the uncanny aesthetic funds a light, sprightly momentum when perhaps something grittier would have been more interesting — the real Petit, for instance, has never shunned away from acknowledging his foolish qualities. In fairness, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does energetic vanity well.
Writer-director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne do at least shed some light on Petit’s stubbornness. The performer’s selfish mantra in the pursuit of artistic merit places unfair stress on his friends and family, a sentiment also explored in Everest. As such Petit veers exceedingly close to unlikeable, which would be fine if the film wasn’t so hell-bent on trying to sell him as the dream-conquering saviour of New York. The screenplay takes liberties with specific true events. In Man on Wire, Petit admits to cheating on his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) immediately after achieving his goal, but the film shies away from this revelation and the alternative it proposes is unsatisfactory.
Petit’s characterisation could be bolder. In an interview on the Empire Podcast, Zemeckis revealed why he chose to selectively colour his lead: “The character I thought the audience could identify with is the one that I portrayed”. His reasoning is fair, but the director is underselling his audience’s willingness to empathise with shades of grey. Towards the end, one of Petit’s comrades suggest he has finally given soul to the Twin Towers, which might also be a fabrication. But at least this is part of Zemeckis’ attempt to pay homage to the World Trade Center post-9/11, and the idealistic notion is actually quite sweet.
Back in France we occasionally rendezvous with Ben Kingsley, playing tutor Papa Rudy, who sports a non-specific European accent — it’s all over the place and nowhere in particular. One of the team members recruited by Petit to fulfil his self-penned destiny suffers from vertigo, while another, who spends the film intoxicated on drugs, jokes about the height of the stunt (though to be fair, the latter’s Shaggy from Scooby-Doo demeanour is quite amusing). Petit himself donates to this atmosphere of farce with statements such as, “I whisper so the demons won’t hear me”.
It is all quite ludicrously caper-ish. Ocean’s Eleven atop the world’s tallest building. As the team plans Petit’s vertical-turned-horizontal heist, the tightrope walker dawns a number of amusing disguises: reporter, construction worker (foot impaled by nail included), tourist, businessman. Composer Alan Silvestri even occasionally treats us to Mission: Impossible’s famous vacillating whistle. The soundtrack also borrows from Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, fielding a cantankerous drum and jazz beat aided by the prevailing tension. Thankfully there is no rushing during The Walk.
Inevitably, the outing has to wade through a sea of invasive anticipation. Most of the events that occur during the opening two-thirds are fine, but we’re only really here to trial the fearful majesty of high, high, high-wire walking. Following Petit’s lead — his calming influence is a saviour — the first time we peer over the edge of the World Trade Center an undeniable rush of exhilaration and terror ensues. This is where Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography really comes to fruition, at night unveiling a wonderful neon carpet below, and during the day capturing the voluminous bustle of New York City. The towers look incredible too; it’s nice seeing them relayed in such a positive light.
But is the walking part of The Walk just a stunning gimmick, or is it a genuine cinematic experience? Probably a bit of both. As Petit steps onto his wire you brace yourself in much the same way someone would prior to pelting down a steep slope on the world’s fastest roller coaster, but the sequence also incorporates classic movie tropes: burgeoning threat, visual amazement, a visceral personal reaction. There is one moment involving a seagull that almost ruins the spectacle (it’s ridiculous and unnecessary) but thankfully that dissipates quickly.
If 3D is one of modern cinema’s aggravating realities then this is the way it ought to be used. For around half an hour, the format contributes to the genuine awe you feel when balancing between the towers. Zemeckis has set a new benchmark in three-dimensional movie-making. Upping the ante? That’ll be a tall order.
Images copyright (©): TriStar Pictures