Oct 22, 2015 Film & TV
This new dramatisation of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers, first recounted in Petit’s autobiography and later in the documentary Man on Wire, does not start promisingly.
Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) addresses the audience directly from atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, the spires of downtown Manhattan visible in the distance. From the laughably on-the-nose location to Gordon-Levitt’s ’Allo, ’Allo! accent, everything feels hokey.
Two hours later, we’re back on that CGI-ed torch. The camera pans to the building that has come to symbolise all that is terrible in the world — and yet, for one brief moment in 1974, was a place of magic. Despite the silliness, it’s a surprisingly affecting conclusion.
That The Walk can pull off such an emotional 180 minutes is testament to the power of its final act, a bravura display of filmmaking that almost makes up for all the rest.
The first section, which covers Petit’s early years in Paris, is atrocious. Director Robert Zemeckis’ main stylistic inspiration seems to have been the infantile artifice of his own Forrest Gump, and the result is just as cloying, with an added layer of extra-strong
It’s all wine bars and Left Bank cobblestones, the Eiffel Tower always prettily in view, as Petit learns his trade first as a street performer, then as a circus high-wire walker.
His first meeting with girlfriend Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), performed entirely in excruciating mime, is probably the nadir. But nearly every scene overshoots the French whimsy by a mile, landing somewhere between saccharine and sacré bleu.
And then the action moves to New York, and The Walk becomes an entirely different beast. The second act plays out like a comic heist movie as Petit assembles a team and starts casing the World Trade Centre, at that time still a building site.
After slogging through the Parisian scenes, we’re rewarded with a sense of forward momentum and some actual unforced fun, largely thanks to James Badge Dale as American sidekick JP.
Finally, Petit is on the precipice. He steps into the air and the swirling clouds part, revealing the cityscape 97 storeys below. It’s a sublime moment, followed by an extended wire-walking sequence that is a vertigo-inducing marvel.
The 17 minutes we spend on that wire (remarkably, only a fraction of the 45 minutes Petit was up there in actuality) give us time to really appreciate Zemeckis’ achievement. The CGI effects are stunning, but the details are what make the scene so magical: the sound of Petit breathing, the wire bowing and swaying, the reverberation of step after careful step.
There’s little doubt you’ll be amazed, especially if you see The Walk in 3D. Whether the sequence is worth sitting through the mess that precedes it, that’s the question.