Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Drama, High wire, James Badge Dale, Joseph-Gordon-Levitt, Literary adaptation, Philippe Petit, Review, Robert Zemeckis, Tightrope, True story, Twin Towers, World Trade Center
D: Robert Zemeckis / 123m
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel
1973. Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt) is a street entertainer in Paris, France, who includes some wire work in his act, usually strung between two trees and without the benefit of having a permit. One day he accepts a gobstopper from a young girl in his audience, but when he bites into it, it causes a painful problem that he goes straight to the dentist with. While in the waiting-room he sees a magazine article on New York’s Twin Towers. Straightaway, Petit knows what he has to do: he has to learn the intricacies of high wire work, and from the acknowledged master, Papa Rudy (Kingsley), in order that he can fulfil his dream of walking between the Twin Towers on just a length of cable. Rudy agrees to teach him. Aided by his girlfriend, Annie (Le Bon), and mutual friend, Jean-Louis (Sibony), Petit determines to travel to New York and carry out his dream.
Once there, Petit enlists the aid of further “accomplices”, such as J.P. (Dale) and Barry Greenhouse (Valentine), who works in the South Tower. Several visits to the site are made in an effort to discover the best time for stringing the cable between the two buildings, and more importantly, when Petit should make the crossing. Petit, though, steps on a nail and injures his right foot, but won’t hear of cancelling or postponing the high wire walk (which has been set for 6 August 1974, and is called The Coup). Aided by Jean-Francois (aka Jeff) (Domboy) and two others recruited by J.P., Petit forges ahead with his plan and they manage to sneak all the relevant equipment into both buildings. But on the night of the 5th, with Petit planning to commence his walk across “the Void” at 6am, the presence of a night guard, and some unexpected problems with the cable and the lines used to stop it from wobbling, throw the endeavour off schedule. Eventually, with Jeff to help him, and Jean-Louis on the other tower, and with Annie, J.P. and Barry watching from the street, Petit takes his first steps out onto the wire…
James Marsh’s documentary on Philippe Petit, Man on Wire (2008), won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2009, as well as a whole raft of other awards from around the world. The one criticism that can be levelled against what is otherwise a very good examination of Petit’s particular brand of “artistic madness”, is that there’s no footage of Petit walking between the Twin Towers. In the hands of Robert Zemeckis, The Walk seeks to remedy this by putting the audience up there with Petit, and by showing just how dangerous it was. However, the key phrase here is “seeks to remedy”, as by and large, Zemeckis takes his cue from Petit himself and dismisses any attempt to instil any fear or heart-pounding terror into the walk itself. While it may well be true that Petit was confident of his abilities, and that the walk – or walks: he traversed the wire several times – was easier than he’d expected, but once he’s out there, the tension that Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Christopher Browne have so successfully created in the movie’s third act (of four) swiftly evaporates.
The movie takes an odd approach to the material, and feels schizophrenic as a result, with a first half that concentrates, in a very old-fashioned Hollywood way, on Petit as a young man just starting out as a street performer, before becoming inspired to walk between the towers. It has the look and feel of a regular biography, with key moments ticked off against a list, and with any potential spontaneity halted before it’s given a chance to start (there’s even a scene where Petit and Annie are getting to know each other by romantic candlelight). And if truth be told, these scenes aren’t even that interesting, delaying as they do the central focus of the movie, namely that walk. Petit shows off his arrogance, Annie melts under his charm too quickly, and things happen with a convenience and disregard for clarity that it’s easier just to go along with it all and wait for the movie to pick up by itself.
Which it does once Petit and friends start “casing the joint” and begin installing the equipment they need. This stretch of the movie contains the most tension and is easily the most compelling, as obstacles need to be overcome and the Coup becomes in danger of being cancelled indefinitely. As the fiercely determined Petit, Gordon-Levitt holds it all together, and if his accent slips from time to time, it’s not the end of the world. He channels Petit’s passion for high wire work with aplomb, even if the character – as written – isn’t as socially aloof or as difficult to work with as Man on Wire revealed. Gordon-Levitt also proves to be a proficient high wire walker, having spent time learning how to do it for real. It’s this level of commitment that helps the movie overcome the weakness inherent in the narrative, the one that doesn’t allow the other characters to be as fleshed out as Petit.
While people like Le Bon, Valentine, and Dale left to stand on the sidewalk and stare at proceedings through binoculars, it’s left to Gordon-Levitt and Domboy to ratchet up the tension, especially Domboy, whose character Jeff, is terrified of heights. Kingsley floats in and out of the narrative and acts purely as a mine of information or encouraging mentor. But while the main performances, however truncated by the need to fit as much in as possible, are comfortably undemanding of the cast, don’t let them die.
Another issue is the unconvincing CGI work carried out once Petit and Jeff are on the roof of the South Tower. The backdrops are impressively detailed, but it’s not enough to allow them to look any better. They stand out against their surroundings, and unfortunately, it’s distracting, as well as a shock to see that an innovator like Zemeckis can’t overcome the lighting issues that have caused this effect. And even more unfortunately, when the camera swings or pans its way over and around Petit’s head when he’s on the wire, there’s no real sense of depth to the image, no sense that this is a very long way down (or somewhere very high up). Petit’s own storytelling image, the emphasis he puts on the danger, and the awkward position it puts him in with the authorities is nicely handled but it’s all too little, too late. And the decision to have Petit holding forth on his exploits from the top of the Statue of Liberty may have semed like a good idea at the time, but in actuality it’s off-putting and makes for dramatically turgid viewing.
The movie does benefit from a classy, contemporary score by the ever reliable Alan Silvestri, while the movie – on the ground, at least – offers some superb visuals courtesy of Dariusz Wolski. If the movie tries to include too much of Petit’s history for its own good, then the end result is a little uneven, and still very ragged in places, but overall the movie does have its charms, and some viewers may yet find themselves overcome by some of the aerial shots
Rating: 6/10 – too uneven and too much like a soap opera in the first half, The Walk treads the Hollywood line once too often to create a movie no one will be able to remember even when they’re buying it; a disappointment then (even in IMAX 3D), and not as gripping as it should have been, it’s still a much more attractive proposition than most movies that are out at the moment.