The Walk opens on Joseph-Gordon Levitt, standing atop the Statue of Liberty, breaking the fourth wall, and speaking in a committed but honestly rather silly French accent. That this tone carries through the entire film and, for the most part, works is both surprising and impressive, and a pleasing return to purely enjoyable, family-friendly fare for the legendary Robert Zemeckis after Flight. Only his second live action film since 2000’s Cast Away, the director of Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump proves that he’s lost none of his flair for breathtaking visual trickery combined with zippy, engaging stories, even if The Walk doesn’t come close to touching those classics.
Gordon-Levitt is Philippe Petit, the now world-famous high-wire stunt artist who pulled off, in his own words, ‘the artistic coup of the century’ with a wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. As Petit, Gordon-Levitt is eminently watchable, even as he and the film hit on every French stereotype possible. An early section of the film set in Paris is in black and white, all artists refer to themselves as some sort of anarchists, and he meets his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) whilst they both do a mime display. Subtlety is not in The Walk’s dictionary any more than ‘death’ is in Petit’s.
The story itself is a very theatrical one, so the majority of the silliness feels fitting. However, it does have a negative impact on the film’s emotional core, with feelings all too often being expressed in exposition-y shouting matches, which can grate after a while. Not only that, but the supporting cast, with the exception of Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy, are ciphers, and whilst Petit having no reason to do the walk other than because he wants to is nicely straight-forward, it doesn’t make you terribly invested in whether or not he actually goes through with it.
Yet when he reaches the top of the South Tower and steps out onto the wire, it’s magnificent. He gives the newly finished buildings an exciting and soul-stirring reason to be, reclaiming the pre-9/11 New York skyline as something to be inspired by, not looked upon with regret. The sequence after Petit completes his ‘coup’ is celebratory, but also poignantly sorrowful, made all the more powerful by the admirable restraint in the addressing of the attacks. We’re here to celebrate art and joy, two of the things terror most fears, a genuinely inspiring message.
As is to be expected from Zemeckis, Petit’s journey between the two towers is stunning. Whenever the camera looks down, you get a worryingly physical sense of just how high the wire is, thanks in part to some of the best 3D effects I’ve seen. It is so rare to see this technology used to actually better a story, rather than bump up ticket prices and make everything a bit blurrier, and seeing The Walk anywhere other than on a huge screen would be a mistake.
The (highly illegal) stunt itself goes very smoothly, other than the involvement of the police Zemeckis dodging cheap thrills and just letting us soak in the majesty of the scene. Instead, the majority of the drama comes from the heist needed to set the walk up. It’s not quite Ocean’s Eleven, but it does provide the similar kind of old-fashioned movie satisfaction, meticulously planned, and allowing each team member a role and a one-liner to remember them by. Unfortunately, the framing device of having Petit describe the events to us post-successful walk drains the sequence of some tension. This means The Walk never reaches the point, that, say, Lincoln, did, where the audience almost entirely forgets about history and becomes completely wrapped up in the thrill of the moment.
Zemeckis has clearly always been interested in marrying traditional storytelling and cutting-edge technology and, in doing so, has created some if the finest and most singular movies in cinema. Whilst The Walk falls short of such praise, its central set-piece is so absolutely beautiful that it’s impossible to not recommend. Everything that precedes the walk itself, even the heist, is preamble, some of it worthwhile, and some of it slightly irritating. But when we join Petit over 400 metres in the air, simultaneously inducing vertigo and artfully mourning the loss of the Twin Towers, all these criticisms melt away. Even when it doesn’t work, The Walk is utterly sincere, a winning trait that makes it impossible to dislike.