I can understand why the people who make decisions in Hollywood thought that the story of Philippe Petit, the French wirewalker who staged an improbable and illegal walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974, might make a good movie. After all, the Oscar-winning documentary about Petit’s death-defying stunt or artwork or whatever it was, “Man on Wire,” played out almost like a heist thriller and, without hitting us over the head with 9/11 references, made the point that Petit’s walk belonged to a simultaneously more innocent and more chaotic era. Especially in the era of full-scale digital effects inaugurated by “Gravity” – we could almost call it digital totality – recreating 110-story buildings that no longer exist, above an altered cityscape, is more possible now than ever before.
I can also understand, in a more abstract way, why Robert Zemeckis, the onetime Spielberg acolyte who directed the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” “Flight” and now “The Walk,” has a devoted fan base among movie buffs. Zemeckis is devoted to making well-crafted popcorn movies, and has always tried to use cutting-edge special effects to tell stories, rather than just to bludgeon the audience into submission. I definitely understand the appeal of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Philippe Petit in “The Walk.” Gordon-Levitt is an immensely likable and talented actor who from his first days in show business has understood himself as both an artist and an entertainer, which is exactly how Petit sees himself as well.
Put those ingredients together, and what do you get? I almost don’t know how to describe it, except with overlapping and contradictory clichés. “The Walk” is much less than the sum of its parts, except when the parts are so good you can’t ignore them. If this were a short film, almost entirely about Petit’s startling and breathtaking stroll, 1,200 or so feet above the streets of lower Manhattan – he walked back and forth between the towers three times, knelt on the wire and even lay down on it to commune with passing seagulls -- it would be magnificent. The event itself, although dangerous, impractical and inherently pointless, possessed a certain magnificence that captured the imagination of New Yorkers at the time, and that Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt gesture toward without quite reaching.
But for most of the film’s two-hour running time (and it feels a bit longer than that), “The Walk” makes no effort to confront the central question that faces all mainstream American movies in this decade, and maybe all cinema of all kinds: Why am I watching this, instead of watching something on TV that is quite likely to be dramatically superior, and told in a less condescending and less ostentatious manner? If the 3-D IMAX bigness of “The Walk” is supposed to be its own reward, or to make up for the film’s superabundance of flaws – well, I’m sorry, but I’m not aboard that train and I’m not sure anyone else is either. At the risk of causing anguish among Zemeckis loyalists, I will point out that in addition to the films mentioned above, this is the guy who directed “Beowulf,” “The Polar Express” and the 2009 Jim Carrey version of “A Christmas Carol.”
It wouldn’t be fair to consign “The Walk” to that category of overprocessed, patronizing and forgettable (not to mention unintentionally terrifying, in the case of the Santa-goes-to-Nuremberg nightmare of “Polar Express”), but that strain of Zemeckis-ness is unmistakably present here. Gordon-Levitt narrates much of the movie as Petit, while atop an imaginary perch on the shoulder of the Statue of Liberty. I have no way of knowing whether that was in the script all along (which is by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, and was based on Petit’s memoir) or was spawned by last-minute producer panic: “Nobody’s gonna understand this story unless we explain the whole damn thing!” But in either case it’s a bad decision made worse by enforced whimsy: Gordon-Levitt hams up Petit’s Franglais just a little (in life, the wirewalker speaks fluent English) and wears, I swear to God, a black turtleneck. I'm sure that at some point they tried him out with a red beret and a digital platter of snails, before deciding that was un petit peu de trop.
By the time we actually reach Petit’s exhilarating walk on an August morning high above a depressed, crime-ridden and nearly bankrupt city (I suppose this is irrelevant, but Petit’s artistic coup made headlines just two days before Richard Nixon’s resignation), I was simply exhausted by Zemeckis’ oppressive insistence that I was being told a valuable, thrilling and humorous story, and was having a good time. I was worn down, first of all, by the bogus picture-postcard cuteness of the film’s depiction of early-‘70s Paris, which in the real world was a troubled and divided city struggling with the wounds of 1968.
I was worn down by the winsome comparisons of the young Petit to Charlie Chaplin, by the storybook artifice of his childhood as a circus-obsessed kid in a remote French village, and by the overly obvious way the script moves the character from speaking French to speaking English, long before he leaves his homeland. (To my Yank ears. Gordon-Levitt’s French is pretty good, but it’s not likely to sound convincing to native speakers.) I was annoyed by the Pointless Winsome Parisian Girlfriend played by Charlotte Le Bon, whose actions in the film consist of strumming a Leonard Cohen song and staring deeply into Petit’s eyes. I was extra-double-annoyed by the Central Casting “Noo Yawk” accents of literally everyone he encounters when Petit comes to America, and by the crowd scenes where every single extra has been positioned to help focus our attention and is acting his or her ass off.
Of course I understand that Zemeckis is not pursuing realism – or at least he’d better not be, since there is no attempt to depict the social fabric of either city -- and that the manicured artifice of “The Walk” represents a series of deliberate choices. But are they good choices, or useful choices? When Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and their immense modeling and digital design team deliver the wordless and transcendent experience of a man risking his life (and the lives of others) for a purpose that cannot be explained and quite likely cannot be justified, they hint at the nature of Petit’s inexplicable achievement.
But “The Walk” comes nowhere close to what “Man on Wire” accomplished in terms of elucidating how and why this extraordinary coup (the right word in both French and English) was pulled off. And along the way Zemeckis undercuts the entire enterprise so thoroughly with a pompous, preachy, prettified collection of stereotypes and archetypes, stuffed with pre-baked homilies about the importance of wonder and dreams, that the transcendence feels unearned and untrustworthy. I admire his delicate final codicil, which recognizes that something happened to those buildings 27 years after Petit’s walk that lends his story special resonance, without ever mentioning what that was or showing us how that part of the island looks today. In those last images, I felt “The Walk” finally shed the turtleneck, the beret and the fake French accent and address us directly, just as it fades to black.