With The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis strives to provide a cinematic testament to the jaw-dropping coup achieved by French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, namely his successful and highly illegal walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Fully committed to its heightened, old-school Hollywood approach, The Walk spends most of it run time leisurely skimming through the build-up to the walk itself, Petit recruiting his thinly characterised accomplices, conducting reconnaissance at the Towers, all leading up to a staggering sequence that embraces large-format 3D in a fashion that fully justifies the ticket price. Zemeckis’ film willingly sidesteps any deeper insights into Petit’s mindset, previously explored in James Marsh’s revered documentary Man On Wire. Instead, from its opening frames, in which star Joseph Gordon-Levitt addresses the camera in a fairly loyal, nonetheless ridiculous take on Petit’s accent, asking ‘Why do I walk on the wire, pourquoi?’, The Walk announces itself as the gloriously unsubtle, relentlessly audacious caper movie it will eventually become.”
We say eventually because, admittedly, it takes some time to get there. Petit’s early years as a street performer in whimsy soaked B&W Paris are sketched broadly, his parents reduced to a few brief scenes, culminating with him being turfed out to their declamation that ‘les carrottes sont cuites!’ (The carrots are cooked). Petit’s early discovery of the towers’ construction sees him commence preparations almost immediately, yet it’s still some time before he and his accomplices, girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) amongst them, make it to the Big Apple. There’s a strong argument to be made that France-set sections of The Walk could just as well have unfolded in a quick montage, largely consisting of Petit’s try-fail-try again-get arrested school of wire walking, all the while assisted by circus master/mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). Yet, cloying voiceover aside, Petit proves great company, Gordon-Levitt’s innate likability overcoming the character’s general lack of growth.
When we finally reach New York, a sense of urgency that previously eluded The Walk kicks in, recruiting the remaining members of the gang, including a memorable turn from charisma cannon James Badge Dale as New Yorker J.P (‘Jean-Pierre in French’), and suddenly morphing into an accomplished heist movie for about 30 minutes. Intentionally or not, strange pacing sees the day of the coup arrive much sooner than we’ve been conditioned to expect, cleverly instilling us with the nerves that wrack the hysterical Petit in the build-up. When he finally steps out onto the wire, it’s nerve-shredding in a way that defies logic, the coup rendered in all its audacious glory. The baffling decision to cut back to Petit’s fourth-wall breaking narration at several points during the sequence does undercut the tension, but it still stands as one of the towering achievements in VFX of recent times, managing to be enormously uplifting and terrifying at the same time.
Filtered through the wide-eyed, single-minded joie de vivre of its protagonist, The Walk’s showy use of 3D is perfectly justified. As far as our narrator is concerned, Petit’s heightened, cartoony life and times are 90% prologue, and while Zemeckis certainly saves the best for last, he doesn’t scrimp on the visuals throughout. Whether it’s a gobstopper spinning into the air before landing in Petit’s mouth or a balance beam flying towards the ground during an aborted wire-walk, this is showman’s 3D at its purest, while POV shots from the wire itself perfectly complement Petit’s simultaneous feelings of elation and dread. How The Walk would play on the small-screen remains to be seen, but viewed in 3D on the enormous canvas it was designed for, Zemeckis’ film stands as a resounding testament to the power of showmanship in cinema, leaving you on an a high.