It’s the 1970s and Frenchman Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a small-time street entertainer in Paris, dreaming of something big. He believes that he is a wire-walking artist and that he is bigger that drawing a chalk circle and balancing a few feet off the ground.
He decides that the ‘coup’ that he must achieve is to walk between the still uncompleted Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. It is a completely crazy idea – he doesn’t even know how far apart the buildings are – but after achieving a stunt to walk between the towers of Notre Dame, he begins to put his idea into action.
Gathering a team of ‘accomplices’, including girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and maths teacher Jeff (César Domboy), along with some American insiders, and with the help of veteran tightrope legend Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), he begins to move forward with his plan. They head for New York, knowing they only have a finite window – and a massive amount of obstacles to overcome – to pull it off.
It’s certainly good to have director Robert Zemeckis back in the world of live-action after his foray into motion-control, and for the last half hour of The Walk he shows exactly why he’s one of the most interesting mainstream visual directors around. Before then the film has a few problems. It’s never dull, but it never gets over the fact that what we’re all really waiting for is for Petit to step out onto the wire between the Twin Towers.
The real-life events were previously told in the excellent documentary Man On Wire, which had the benefit of looking at Phillipe rather than viewing things completely through his eyes. The problem with making him totally central is that, as anyone who’s seen Man On Wire will now, Petit is arrogant, solipsistic and a little annoying. While The Walk does soften that, it can’t completely escape it (not least because so many people know it’s true), meaning you have to spend two hours with someone you’d probably want to slap in real life, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing his damnedest – but only partially succeeding – in making the character seem as much a visionary as he is a maddening ball of arrogance.
The movie does attempt to expand things, by making it about teamwork and the fact Petit couldn’t have done any of it without his accomplices, and while this works quite well, it is often difficult to see why they want to help Philippe as he’s very annoying. Likewise, the film’s attempts to turn the whole thing into a heist movie are kind of fun, but not completely successful.
However, once the main wire-walk starts the whole thing becomes a completely different movie. While it’s not the same spectacle as it was in 3D in the cinema, it’s still wonderfully shot, with the camera zooming around Petit as he steps out into the void, with only a thin wire between him and a 110 storey drop. Indeed, it’s worth plodding through the first 90 minutes just to get to this portion of the movie, as it’s brilliantly executed and beautiful to behold.
Of course, the events of 9/11 can’t help but colour the movie, but The Walk smartly avoids trying to draw too many parallels or become too maudlin about it, saving it for a subtle note at the end.
Overall Verdict: While the lead up to Petit’s incredible Twin Towers wire-walk is only partially successful, once he’s high up in the air the movie comes to life and becomes quite wonderful.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac