Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Opens September 30
Hoky and lovin’ it, Robert Zemeckis’s goofy film about Philippe Petit and his historic wire-walk begins with a Francophilic backstory to the man that makes Amelie look like Neorealism. Even the film’s legitimately white-knuckle second half runs on appropriated appeal: the chronicle of Petit and his accomplices as they infiltrate the Twin Towers takes its enjoyable heist styling from James Marsh’s doc Man on Wire, while the CGI-enabled Walk itself explicitly seeks through 3-D to induce the stomach-level thrill of a tight-rope act—one in which we’re right up there with the walker.
“What did you expect” is the refrain, from Zemeckis observers, though that response always feels like a “no contest” plea more than an actual argument on the merits.
As a young, brash Petit, eyes on the prize, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the unenviable task of playing a self-consciously playful character and that same character narrating his progress, perched on the Statue of Liberty in segments that should rightly have been limited to bookends. For it’s truly a storybook look that Zemeckis has adopted for the quixotic little Frenchman’s quest, aided by assorted cartoonishly wispy sidekicks including his Kewpie girlfriend (Charlotte le Bon) and guided by Ben Kingsley’s twinkly-eyed circus maven.
Not that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the storybook approach—The Walk might best be judged as a children’s movie, because otherwise, why bother with a narrated run-up that’s been deemed partly “unbearable” even by fans? There’s something almost preemptive about the friendly humor surrounding Petit, as if to forestall the fact that he’d ordinarily be talking about his walk in terms of the sublime; here, he’s a stubborn artist-hero, distinguished mainly for being driven by neither money nor revenge but the purity of the act.
Gordon-Levitt, never as broken-English charming as his elfin subject, delivers dialogue heavy with “void” references, which inadvertently points to a certain historical aggression within the film. The sublime is glimpsed in the walk, sure enough, and to no small effect (though indebted to Jackson’s King Kong remake finale). But I couldn’t help but get a whiff of overcompensation in Zemeckis’s arm-waving efforts to turn 70s New York into an antic comic book. The actual, unspoken void is, of course, the destruction of the Twin Towers, and if anything, The Walk becomes only more fascinating for the binaries it can’t help but be a part of: Petit’s voluntary, high-minded risk of life on buildings that would be the site of unfathomable suffering.
That last is absolutely not meant as criticism of the film (because, first, what really would that mean, and, second, attacking The Walk in most any way would be like getting into a shouting match with a stuffed animal), but more just marveling at the inescapable shadow that history can still cast. Zemeckis, one of Hollywood’s grandest showmen for decades now, is intently focused on pulling off marvels, making a film that’s as much about the need to put on a show as anything else.