Robert Zemeckis' 'The Walk' Is Steady On The Tightrope, But Wobbly Off Of It [NYFF Review]

As what IMAX calls "An IMAX 3D Experience," Robert Zemeckis' The Walk is excellent. From the moment Joseph Gordon-Levitt touches his toe on that tightrope, The Wire becomes the kind of intensely visceral experience you can only truly experience in a movie theater*, preferably one equipped with an extra-jumbo screen and 3D projection.

As a narrative feature, however, The Walk is somewhat less accomplished. Gordon-Levitt is as watchable as always, but the film never truly reveals Philippe Petit. In trying to make Petit feel universal, Zemeckis erases what makes him special.

* Well, at least until virtual reality becomes a more common form of entertainment – but more on that later. 

The Walk opens with a close-up of Gordon-Levitt addressing the audience. "Why?" he says. "That is the question people ask me. Why attempt the impossible?" As the camera zooms out, we see he's standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty (like Petit's Twin Towers walk, a gift from the French) with the Twin Towers looming bright in the background. That's the first clue that we're dealing with the kind of heightened reality that brought floating feathers and deus ex machina rainstorms to Forrest Gump.

The first act of the film covers our hero's beginnings. He discovers tightrope walking, picks up a mentor (Ben Kingsley) and a girlfriend, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), practices his craft, and learns about the construction of the Twin Towers. The fast clip keeps the film from getting too boring, but it also gives us little time to understand who Petit is. His most famous stunt is the kind of thing only a madman would attempt. So the limp, generic motivations offered by the movie — a commitment to his artistry, a spirit of anarchy, a lifelong obsession with walking across things — are not satisfying.

As Petit, Gordon-Levitt makes for an engaging lead but not a particularly convincing one. Even with a thick French accent and an unflattering wig, Gordon-Levitt never completely disappears into the role. Still, the benefits of his performance might outweigh the drawbacks here. Gordon-Levitt's usual likability shines through, making Petit easy to root for. And even though he's clearly not doing all of his own stunts — and even though any real stunts he did do surely consisted of tiptoeing a couple feet off the ground in front of a greenscreen — Gordon-Levitt's nimble physicality makes it a cinch to suspend disbelief.

The Walk gains more purpose in its second act as Petit starts planning "the coup," essentially switching from a biopic to a heist film. Petit travels back and forth between Paris and New York, employing all manner of disguises to case the joint and collecting a colorful array of "accomplices" across the way. (The best of these is J.P., a scene-stealing pawn shop proprietor played by James Badge Dale.) Unfortunately, Zemeckis undercuts the emotional effectiveness of the heist by failing to establish any real stakes. It's never really clear what these people are risking, beyond some vague talk of jail time, or why they're willing to risk it.

This act also contains the film's sole suggestion that Petit's determination to walk between the Twin Towers on a thin cable, some 1,350 above ground with no harness or safety net, might be something less than healthy and relatable. On the eve of the coup, Petit shows his dark side in the form of some gallows humor, but then freaks out at any mention of death; in turn, Annie calls him selfish and accuses him of taking his accomplices for granted. It makes sense in theory, but again, Zemeckis hasn't done the groundwork to make it land. The outburst feels out of nowhere, as if Zemeckis just realized that "tortured" is supposed to be part of the artist biopic formula.

Finally, we get to the actual stunt — and it's here that The Walk really begins to soar. I've complained about Zemeckis' laziness in establishing emotional stakes or motivation for the characters, but he's been meticulous about setting up the terror and exhilaration of the walk. Earlier scenes have shown us how perilous tightrope walking is, and how easily a performance can fall apart. When Petit first ventures on that wire, we know exactly what dangers he's facing.

At times, we see as Petit does. When he first steps on that wire, everything else fades away. The wire looks abstract, inviting, and, as a black line leading into a cloudy white void, inevitable. Then everything comes rushing back. We hear the wind rushing in his ears and the groan of the wire as it supports his weight, and see just how far above the streets of New York he is. Other times, we see what J.P. and Annie do from the ground — a lone black figure walking in air. And then there are times we see as God, or a bird, might, peering down at this strange, daring creature from above.

The Twin Towers stunt isn't just the best part of the movie. It's the film's entire reason for existing. Without it, The Walk is just another middling biopic in a fall season full of them; with it, it comes very close to essential IMAX 3D viewing. Unless, that is, you're lucky enough to have a The Walk virtual reality promotion in the theater lobby like I did.

Designed by Create Advertising, the experience puts you on the wire in Petit's place. The whole thing extends maybe four feet and lasts maybe two minutes, but it's a heart-pounding experience. According to the engineer running the event, only about half the participants actually complete the walk, and a quarter refuse to even take the first step — it's that real, and that terrifying. As I took off the helmet, I couldn't help but feel Zemeckis' The Wire, for all its artistic ingenuity, had suffered a bit in comparison. It's great that Zemeckis' The Walk does such a fine job of recreating Petit's stunt in all its visceral glory. It's just, in this age of other high-tech entertainment options, not enough.