The Walk opens with a spectacular shot of the New York City skyline, complete with the Twin Towers perfectly recreated in faultless CGI, described lovingly in voiceover narration by the French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Then the camera pulls back to reveal Petit balanced on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, and the gentle magical realism immediately becomes absurd.
That’s The Walk’s problem: For most of its running time, it can’t do anything visually splendid without crossing into hokey territory. There’s no quiet, poetic moment that isn’t immediately followed by a loud, clunky piece of comedy, an overwrought monologue, or a ridiculous display of technical prowess.
Still, the movie almost gets away with it, because it closes with its titular set-piece, the famous wire-walk Petit performed between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Its director Robert Zemeckis has, of late, become intently focused on the limits of CGI and how they can impact storytelling on film, making motion-capture animated films like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. All of that technological mastery is on display in the film’s final 30 minutes, best seen on the biggest screen possible. But whether you can enjoy the stodgy and formulaic lead-up to that bravura stunt depends on your tolerance for bad accents and worse dialogue.
As anyone who saw the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire would know, Petit is at heart a showman, a thrilling daredevil, and caddish clown, and The Walk tries to imitate his spirit from minute one. Gordon-Levitt, an actor capable of tremendous brooding subtlety in films like Brick and Mysterious Skin is fully extroverted here, almost acting as if he’s hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live. He’s resplendent in a goofy wig, jarring blue contact lenses, and a heroically silly French accent (a fluent French speaker, he sounds great when speaking the language, but far less so in English).
The film tries its best to match Gordon-Levitt’s carnival-barker performance, but there’s a fine line between charming and strained, and The Walk doesn’t have enough plot to breeze past every ridiculous affectation. Paris is photographed in chintzy black and white, as if viewers were watching newsreel of the Bohemian turn of the century, and it’s a wonder every character isn’t costumed in berets, striped shirts, and rings of garlic, so unsubtle is the rest of the imagery. That tone persists when the film shifts to mid-’70s New York, where every Brooklyn-accented cop looks and acts like he’s on the prowl for the Sharks and the Jets.
There’s an obvious motivation for this kind of pastiche: In personality and actions, Petit is hardly a subtle person, so why not rise to that? But until he gets on that high-wire, there isn’t much for Petit and his gang of misfits—including his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and photographer buddy Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony)—to do. We see the restless Petit learn the circus trade at a young age from a domineering carnival owner, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, sporting an implacable accent of his own concoction,) and then quickly resolving to complete the “coup” atop the Twin Towers once he sees an article about their construction in a magazine.
The narrative bulk of the film is Petit’s meticulous planning and spy-work inside the Towers, building a case for a task the audience already knows he will accomplish. To embellish this, Zemeckis shows just what his camera can do combined with state-of-the-art CGI, sweeping up and down the 115 stories of the World Trade Center with ease and showing off the surrounding views, rendered in immaculate period detail. For anyone made queasy by heights, these are the moments that are easily the most dizzying. Once Petit is on his wire and ready to put on a show, The Walk finally settles down, pulls back on the plot and character stereotypes, and lets its images speak for themselves.
From a dramatic perspective, the most notable thing about Petit’s wire-walk was that it was relatively crisis-free, and the film is happily faithful to that fact. Zemeckis allows himself a couple of wobbly moments (will a specific cinder block break?) but mostly understands that the very sight of Petit between those towers is engrossing enough without any further tension. Once everyone has stopped talking and The Walk’s technical wizards (along with Gordon-Levitt, who really did perform on a wire, though not 1,350 feet in the air) do their work, the film finds the grace it’s been seeking all along, and its self-serving narration finally feels necessary to the show, rather than thuddingly obvious.
As a piece of storytelling, The Walk has nothing on its documentary forebear, tripping over its lame attempts at humor and suspense too many times. But as something to see—akin to, say, a trip to the Planetarium, or a 20-minute IMAX movie—its set-piece cannot be ignored. Zemeckis’s failing is his inattention to every other detail, but The Walk undeniably exists for its climax: one stunt it does manage to pull off flawlessly.