For a sizable portion of his career — at least since Back to the Future first positioned him to be able to take pricey risks in his projects — director Robert Zemeckis has been most enlivened by material that allows him some opportunity to bend the latest cinematic technology to the needs of classic Hollywood narrative. At its best, this has led to films where the exuberance of Zemeckis’s relentless invention gave truth to the overused term movie magic. It also led to an unfortunate stretch of years that found him stuck in the Uncanny Valley. Even at the most dire, the commitment of Zemeckis as a creator usually came through. When the results are lacking, the integrity and sincerity of the director’s intent are still apparent. His latest, The Walk, is a deeply compromised film, burdened with a slew of problematic elements, all fully correctable. Simultaneously, it seems clear that Zemeckis made it in large part for the opportunity to place the audience, almost literally, in a spot that in nearly unthinkable, certainly unobtainable for most every person who will buy a ticket. It’s hard to argue that he fails in that singular, ultimately admirable goal.
Providing a fictionalized account of the events previously depicted on film in James Marsh’s fine documentary Man on Wire, Zemeckis tells the story of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a French tightrope walker who, in 1974, saw the newly erected World Trade Center towers as an irresistible beacon, the obvious site for an act of impossible daring. He decided to surreptitiously string a high wire between the two buildings, stepping out to traverse the two hundred feet between with no rigging to help save him from a plummet of nearly fourteen-hundred feet if his balance wasn’t true. With a screenplay co-credited to Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, the film affords the opportunity to track Petit’s feat with procedural focus while providing entryways to a study of an the sort of obsessiveness necessary to pull off such a foolhardy mission. The film does better with the former than the latter. The closer the film draws to the actual attention-getting events of that summer morning, the better it becomes, considering the setbacks that naturally arise with an unfussy attention. The attempts to flesh in Petit as a person are less compelling, in part because of the deeply misguided decision to layer in boxcars worth of largely unnecessary narration, made all the worse by the conceit of having Levitt’s Petit deliver it directly to the camera, from a perch atop the Statue of Liberty, no less. Zemeckis is an impeccable visual craftsman, and many of the earliest scenes tell the story just fine without a single explanatory word needed. Unfortunately, relative silence, which Zemeckis used so well in Cast Away, is discarded as a viable option.
Silence might have served Levitt better as well, since he adopts a distractingly gummy French accent, more fitting for a comic foil in a nineteen-eighties sitcom than the protagonist of a ostensibly serious docudrama. The broad strokes of the performance are clearly what Zemeckis was after as a multitude of fine actors are cajoled into the same overt cadences, led by a hammy Ben Kingsley as the Czech circus performer who helps Petit learn his craft. Only James Badge Dale, as an American co-conspirator recruited by Petit, emerges with a wholly respectable performance, indulging in boldness without ever tipping into the cartoonish.
For all the issues with the film, there is an earned majesty when it reaches the act named in the title, especially when seen in 3D. Indeed, I can’t imagine watching The Walk without the enhancement. The film gains purpose when Petit moves onto his wire, coming as close to providing the sensation of experiencing such a unlikely miracle of odd human achievement as is imaginable with current technology. Even still, part of the appeal is that Zemeckis has the restraint to not send his camera zooming around or otherwise calling undue attention to the vivid construction of these scenes. He calmly depicts it while taking thoughtful advantage of the ability to better convey depth and height than he would have had a decade ago. The value of the scene, lengthy as it is, doesn’t erase the plentiful problems elsewhere in the film, of course, but it does help to push them aside in the memory. There’s no cause to dwell on storytelling shortcomings when given the gift of a vicarious stroll among the clouds.