The Walk (2015)

The WalkIn 1973, wire walker Phileppe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems content to entertain the Parisian public in exchange for small change and the occasional hard-boiled sweet. When a chance broken tooth lands him in a dentist’s waiting room, however, he becomes fixated on New York’s World Trade Centre after seeing the Twin Tower’s featured in a magazine article. Determined to walk between the towers, Petit turns to veteran circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) in order to learn the finer details of knot-tying and rope-rigging. He also recruits girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibomy) as accomplices, and shortly after a dry-run at Notre Dame flies the three of them out to America so that they might begin plotting the “coup” in earnest. The plan: to rig a cable at 1350 feet so that he might tightrope between the two tallest buildings on Earth.

Over the last fourteen years audiences have become so used to contemporary films and other fiction being referred to as post-9/11 that there will inevitably be some who are surprised to discover that there was a time before the Twin Towers had even been built. Perhaps counter-intuitively, so iconic and well-integrated were the structures, you only have to look back just over forty years — to 1973, when they were first opened. The same year, that is, that Robert Zemeckis’ story — and, for that matter, the real-life story of Philippe Petit — actually begins. We meet him in Paris where he is performing for passers-by, juggling at first and later traversing a tight-rope tied between two lampposts, but it isn’t long before he sets his sights on something much, much bigger — the original Mission: Impossible.

On the surface, The Walk has a lot going for it. It is, after all, a tremendous true story, and one that has only really been explored once before on film, in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Both films focus on the heist elements of the story, chronicling what was very much a crime, but only The Walk has Zemeckis calling the shots. Only his second live-action movie since Cast Away, the Back to the Future creator reasserts himself by combining his genius for physical performance with his understanding of stereoscopy, perfected over the course of his four-film flirtation with motion-capture animation. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most interesting and ambidextrous actors working today, and it should come as no surprise that the film’s climax — in which Petit walks, unaided save for a metal cable and balancing pole, between the towers, no less than six times — is one of the most simultaneously breathtaking and breathless scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, the build-up leaves rather a lot to be desired. It has been reported that not only did Gordon-Levitt learn to walk the high-wire in eight days (thanks, it must be said, to Petit’s personal tuition) but he also became fluent in French. Both are obviously impressive feats, and each duly demonstrates the actor’s obvious dedication to his craft, but while the former fact results in a more credible performance the latter sadly does not. Instead of putting what he has learned into practice, Gordon-Levitt is only ever really required to speak English with a vaguely French accent. His clumsy narration doesn’t just open the film, however, but returns at regular intervals to undermine it throughout, often spoken directly to the camera while Gordon-Levitt straddles an equally unconvincing Statue of Liberty. It’s a horribly misjudged framing device that hamstrings the film from the get-go. Evidently, the film isn’t just a tribute to Petit’s talents but to the Twin Towers themselves, and 1970s New York is painstakingly recreated from the ground up. France, however, doesn’t enjoy quite the same verisimilitude, and the scenes set across the pond feel comparatively specious and superficial. The soundtrack jars, too.

The Walk is undoubtedly the main event — worthy, perhaps, of the price of admission on its own — but it’s a shame that more couldn’t be done with the character of Petit or the other important figures in his life. Zemeckis has rather conspicuously cast French (and French Canadian) actors in his film, in small supporting roles, but although Clément Sibomy and Charlotte Le Bon do ultimately manage to impress it is despite the material they have been given rather than because of it. The Walk is a spectacle, teased from the very beginning, whereas the journey to the towers could have made a more satisfying movie. Like Petit, Zemeckis should have taken things one step at a time.