When Philippe Petit walked across the Twin Towers on a tightrope in 1974, he attempted to make the impossible possible and create a grandiose act of defiance and beauty. In James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire, this act was captured with exactly that spirit, a shocking example of what determination can do, filled with tension and excitement. From the beginning of The Walk, co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis goes for the larger-than-life aspects of Petit, creating an almost theatrical retelling of his story, mostly devoid of restraint, with a show-don’t-tell mentality.
The Walk immediately dives into its over-the-top nature, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit narrating the entire story standing atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, overlooking an incredibly false looking New York City landscape. For some reason, the fictionalized version of this story decides to take the same approach to the documentary, with Petit explaining his story, but here it does not work at all. Throughout the film, this narration constantly states exactly what is happening on the screen, to an unbearably obnoxious point.
Gordon-Levitt’s Petit goes throughout Europe looking for places to put his wire, taking any opportunity to show off his wire-walking talents and always looking for bigger challenges. His mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) helps Petit refine his skills and teaches him that the audience is the most important part of any stunt. Upon seeing an advertisement for the still-in-construction World Trade Center, he becomes determined to put his wire between the two towers and walk across. Petit and his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, the film’s only character that seems realistic and layered) travel to New York City and gather a crew of men to help him achieve his dream, no matter how insane it might seem.
Petit’s origin story of sorts is never all that compelling, and doesn’t really add much to the story. We learn of his love for the wire and its hinted that he has a problematic history with his parents, but none of this has anything to do with the story at hand. Upon the move to New York City, the film shifts into heist mode, but never quite nails the suspense that should be inherent with such a task.
It is however in the film’s actual walk across the Twin Towers where The Walk truly excels. For the first time, The Walk is able to engross the audience into the story, as we see Petit’s walk from his perspective in stunning detail. Even if the story of Petit’s walk is well-known, there’s still an active fear that something will go wrong or that one single wrong step could lead to his death. As Petit takes his walk, its compelling enough to forgive the previous two acts of frustrating missteps.
Over the last decade, Zemeckis has embraced 3D technology, but only in animated films and never to a level that truly changed the film’s dynamic. In The Walk however, Zemeckis uses 3D in both phenomenal, understated ways, but also in gimmicky, showy ways. Not only is the 3D incredible during the walk, adding a level of depth that only could be given using this technology, but in smaller moments it works beautifully. Used during simple conversations, the extra space between character is a nice addition and elements such as a smoking cigarette or the way a wire enters the frame bring some much-needed realism to the film.
Every once in a while, Zemeckis will rely on cheap shocks to reinforce the 3D. It occurs rarely, thankfully, but a wire will shoot at the screen or a juggling act will fly right at the screen, as if The Walk doesn’t have a fantastic use of 3D waiting for its final act and must reinforce the technique’s possibilities.
In the film’s eponymous moment, The Walk is able to immerse its audience with 3D and a stunning situation in a way that films rarely are able to accomplish. Unfortunately this moment and too many others are narrated to death, explained over and over, so the focus on origins and a heist without suspense hold the entire film back. There’s a beauty to The Walk when it allows us to embrace the silence and beauty of making the impossible possible, but instead The Walk far too often just doesn’t know when to shut up.