Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds a winning vulnerability and doubt behind the tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s preternatural confidence.
Once upon a time, everything was not fenced off. Those who remember life in New York City before 9/11 will experience moments of cognitive dissonance while watching Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk. It's jarring to see the Twin Towers again standing like steel sentinels over Manhattan. It's stranger still to see people rushing through one of the lobbies while it’s still under construction… with nobody stopping them. The scene recalls a time when we didn't think anyone would want to break in to the site or worse, want to destroy it.
In 1974, Philippe Petit, a French acrobat, came to New York with a vision in his head. He had seen a picture of the World Trade Center in a magazine and decided that he needed more than anything else in his life to stretch a wire between the two buildings and walk across it. Never mind that the 110-story buildings swayed noticeably in high winds and were so tall that people inside could look down on cloud formations. Never mind that Petit had to figure out how to assemble a team of willing lawbreakers, haul piles of heavy equipment up into the sky, invent and then construct a rig in the dead of night, and at last, of course, not fall during the walk. He wanted to do all of these impossible things. And so he did.
Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne wisely realize that they don't need to elaborate on Petit’s chutzpah or the impeccably dramatic outlines of his story. Still, The Walk faces challenges. For one thing, it's situated precariously between genres, in particular genres in which Zemeckis has been working recently. That is, the movie is part mainstream saga about a brilliant obsessive (like Flight or Contact) and part gimmicky 3D extravaganza (A Christmas Carol and Beowulf). While The Walk fortunately falls more into the former category than the latter, it also suffers by its inevitable comparison to James Marsh's brilliant 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which recounts this story in a tautly thrumming style, powered along by Petit’s own enthusiasm.
All this means that, playing Petit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has his work cut out for him. And for the most part, he avoids two obvious pitfalls: he doesn't disappear behind the film’s vertiginous special effects and doesn't push Petit's exuberance into full-tilt clowning. This last is complicated by the fact that Petit actually was a clown, a unicycle-riding, juggling mime. Gordon-Levitt finds a winning vulnerability and doubt behind Petit’s preternatural confidence.
But the performance isn’t helped by Zemeckis’ lengthy stage-setting. The Walk lays out Petit’s childhood, love of the circus, and preparations for his New York adventure. One welcome element during this big slather of Paris à la Amelie is its introduction of Ben Kingsley as Rudolph, Petit’s gruff Czech sensei. If he's prone to mugging here, Kingsley also gives Rudolph a diamond-tough precision that stands in contrast to bland secondary characters like Petit's girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon).
Once The Walk lands in New York, it tightens up. In stranger-than-fiction fashion, Petit in short order puts together his team -- a World Trade Center office worker, a guy from whom he buys a pair of radios, a pair of hippies who come off as Shaggy and Shaggy’s less intelligent friends -- to help with what he calls his “coup.” Now transformed into a sprightly caper film, The Walk lays out the crime's logistics. These are fun to see, even if they're not -- unsurprisingly -- less detailed than in Marsh's documentary.
Beyond such plot points, though, the movie captures the team's giddy larcenous spirit, and reflects a feeling in the city at the time. Like Petit, his accomplices seek liberation, a pursuit that becomes a running theme in the film and helps to cut against the occasionally saccharine note. For all the spine-tingling thrills of the climax, this is a story about freedom, and not the sloganeering variety. What Petit has in mind a more joyfully anarchic freedom. It’s why he does the walk in the first place. It’s why, when the police come piling onto the two towers' rooftops and witness his optimistic ballet, they’re infuriated, baffled, and transfixed all at the same time. They’re watching a truly free man. It’s something most of us will never see.