The 53rd New York Film Festival kicked off with a crowdpleaser this weekend, offering on Opening Night the world premiere of Robert Zemeckis’ IMAX 3D experience The Walk. With this ambitious biopic, the beloved director aims to put audience members in the slim-soled shoes of Philippe Petit in his 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Zemeckis not only wants you to understand what drives a man to walk off a building that is over 1,300 feet tall. He wants you to experience that rush, offering point-of-view shots that peer down past Petit’s feet to the bustling New York City streets so so far below. It’s a tall order. And regrettably, Zemeckis manages one beautifully, while the other falls flat.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the 24-year-old Philippe Petit, a French high wire walker who saw his circus stunts as a higher form of art, both literally and metaphorically. He is a man obsessed with conquering spaces by hanging his wire. He leaps from town squares to the heights of Notre Dame’s towers, before taking on the world’s most iconic high-wire walk at the World Trade Center. Some will smirk at Gordon-Levitt’s Frensch accent. But if you’ve ever seen the Petit-focused documentary Man on Wire, you’ll realize it’s actually pretty accurate and toned down version of a man who purposefully made himself a larger-than-life character.
This is the film’s main problem. Zemeckis tries to maintain a balancing act of presenting Petit as a human cartoon and as a relatable hero. The script—co-written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne—is loaded with monologues about art and passion that try to tie Petit’s “coup” to any old creative ambition. But there’s a world of differences between the artistic risks that most people take and WALKING OFF THE SOUTH TOWER! The film blithely ignores this distinction, and so loses its footing despite Gordon-Levitt’s valiant efforts to humanize Petit.
He positively nails the cocky and clownish showmanship of Petit, exerting a confidence and enthusiasm on the wire (which yes, Gordon-Levitt did walk, though at 12-feet not 1,300). And he shows sure-footing in bravado-fueled speeches about his “coup” and his refusal to recognize the possibility of falling, failure and death. But even all the charms of this affable ingendude can’t stitch together poorly plotted character threads, like Petit’s romance with his songstress girlfriend (the lovely Charlotte Le Bon) or his intense fraternity with his the various accomplices who aided him in this surreptitious stunt. In the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, how these people came to be inspired by Petit, and devoted to his seemingly insane mission is dedicatedly unpacked. In The Wire, acquaintances, strangers and random New Yorkers join the team out of nowhere and too often for no apparent reason. By the third act, Le Bon’s character has been relegated without explanation to watching the plot unfold from the ground. And you might well wonder why she was included at all considering her character is robbed of purpose in the film’s biggest moment, and her real-life resolution is wildly played down to allow this PG movie its happy ending. (An amicable break-up theirs was not.)
But despite the absolute mess that is the film’s emotional throughline, there is a lot to enjoy in The Walk. Ben Kingsley is fittingly gruff and entertaining as Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy. Ben Schwartz offers some amusing exasperation as a reluctant accomplice. There’s a beautiful scene of male bonding—that plays as far more intimate than any of the girlfriend stuff—between Petit and his heights-fearing friend Jeff (a tender Cesar Domboy). But the best scene stealer is native New Yorker James Badge Dale, relishing in playing a fast-talking French-American who’s rebellious and fast on his toes, leaning into ’70s stereotypes to bend potential adversaries to his will. He’s frisky, fun and surprisingly sexy with his big bushy period-appropriate hair. If there’s any justice in this world, he should be a big damn deal really soon.
But for all this, the real reason to see The Walk is for its titular sequence. Shot in 2D but brilliantly re-rendered in 3D, Petit’s walk is so realistic that you’ll be gasping for breath. You know it’s a movie. You know you’re safe, and yet it’s convincing enough that your pulse will quicken. Your body may go rigid. You might reach out for the arm rest, or the arm of the stranger next to you to remind you “this is a movie this is a movie this is a movie.” It’s exhilarating and strange, a wonderful ride that will thrill and chill from the safety of your seat. But to get there, you’re going to have to slog through some serious schmaltz.
Zemeckis is—after all—the man who brought us Forrest Gump. His penchant for sentimentality has only increased in the intervening years. Petit’s introduction is made as he stands on the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty, none-too-subtly presenting the wire walker as another French gift that has helped make New York magical. Petit’s days as a mime are shown in black-and-white. To make Gordon-Levitt seem convincingly an impulsive teenager, the helmer gives him big bulbous pimples that really pop in 3D. But in the grand finale, Zemeckis begins laying his schmaltz on thick. Forget Forrest Gump’s feather. We’ve upgraded to a full—and clearly CGI—bird as a symbol to the film’s hero.
Then, after he’s completed his walk, Petit is roundly credited with giving the Towers “a soul.” Granted, it’s believed that his whimsical walk did incite a change in how New Yorkers perceived the buildings that had been derided as “giant filing cabinets.” But in a post-9/11 world, it feels a bit crass to credit their significance so entirely to a death-defying performance artist. And perhaps mileage will vary on the film’s finale. But as a long-time New Yorker, I cringed as a shot lingers on the Towers—diligently reconstructed in 3D—while Petit laments that his special observation deck pass promises him access to their tops “forever.” We know why this is sad. Lingering here feels tawdry and a bit exploitative in a way the rest of the film’s depictions of the Towers keenly avoided.
Ultimately, as a movie The Walk is a mess of sappiness, showmanship and sloppy character arcs. But even with as unwieldy as its narrative is, The Walk is an absolutely awesome ride you won’t want to miss out on. Do it right, see it in 3D IMAX. Anything else is a waste of your time.
The Walk will open in theaters October 9th.
Kristy Puchko likes Forrest Gump. Just for the record.