I suppose the best thing I can say about The Walk is that my foreknowledge of its events did not in any way hinder my enjoyment of the movie or compromise its most suspenseful moments. Anyone else who saw the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire will know that it tells the exact same story as The Walk, of French wire-walker Philippe Petit’s dangerous (and not to mention illegal) mission to string a cable between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center and walk across it. The Walk doesn’t assume its audience will all be familiar with the unusual true story upon which it is based, but also doesn’t try to drum-up any phoney tension that Petit might fatally fail in his quest by having him narrate the whole movie from a retrospective point-of-view. This of course begs the question as to what purpose The Walk can serve in dramatizing this story that the documentary could not?
I actually wasn’t even that keen on Man on Wire, feeling that it had an over-reliance on talking head interviews and most crucially, didn’t contain any actual footage of the grand stunt it was building-up to. Though it was hardly the filmmakers’ fault, no such footage exists, only still photographs, but the documentary felt somehow incomplete without it.
Director Robert Zemeckis takes full advantage of his opportunity to one-up his documentary counterpart in staging Petit’s grand “artistic coup”. The walk itself is a spectacular sequence, after the film’s gradual build up, Zemeckis allows it to take up the majority of the film’s third act and it never feels over-indulgent. Zemeckis has long been fascinated with bringing new technology to filmmaking and, his performance capture work aside, been one of the few directors who appears to understand that sometimes the best special effects are ones you don’t see (whatever you think of the film as a whole Forrest Gump’s visual effects Oscar was well-deserved).
Of course, real-life events have necessitated more digital effects work will be required to re-create the Twin Towers, but Zemeckis brings his mastery of subtle special effects to the film’s central set-piece. You can really feel the height and danger as Petit steps out onto the wire, and Zemeckis emphasises this by utilising a series of camera angles that would be impossible on a real set (for example one close up of a plummeting cable would place the camera somewhere in the air in the middle of the towers). I can imagine this film really doing a number on those with a serious fear of heights.
The effects work isn’t just about creating a sense of fear though, it also conveys the beauty Petit saw in the buildings and the city that he gushes about in the asides. This is all assisted by the wonderful score from Zemeckis’ regular composer Alan Silvestri (their collaboration dates back to Romancing the Stone). Alternating between upbeat jazzy numbers and melodic piano-based orchestral ones, it’s the best score I can recall from Silvestri in some time.
The stunt itself is only the climactic sequence of the movie though, taking up around a quarter of its running time. Prior to that we have the whole ‘heist movie’ plot-line as Petit and his accomplices work out just how they’re going to pull this feat off. While what they’re doing is obviously illegal, it’s easy to support them as they’re not actually trying to rob anyone. Their quest to the top features a number of enjoyably tense moments, even if several beats such as trying to avoid security guards are familiar heist movie problems. Real-life knowledge does in-fact help to forgive the moments that come across as overly co-incidental, a building employee recognising Petit and then wishing to become his “inside man” for example.
What comes before all this is not quite as strong unfortunately. The Walk attempts to be both a re-creation of his most famous feat and also a biopic of Petit. The entire first act focuses on explaining how he came to be interested in wire-walking, trained under a circus veteran played by Ben Kingsley, and later came to discover his dream of walking between the Twin Towers. All of this material is arguably superfluous to the movie as a whole, and would likely have been omitted or relegated to a few exchanges if this were fictional, though aspects would likely be dismissed as unrealistic if that was the case.
Obviously the entire second half of the film takes place in New York City, but this is primarily a French story, which leads to certain problems when attempting to make a Hollywood movie out of it, first and foremost; the language. The film finds excuses to have characters speak to each other in English throughout the first half, mainly by Petit stating that he wishes to practice and improve his abilities.
Petit himself is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s a good actor, but not a French one. He adopts a rather outrageous French accent that takes some getting used to. This isn’t helped by the fact that his main accomplices (Charlotte Le Bon and Clément Sibony) are able to use natural accents.
Dodgy as his voice might be, Gordon-Levitt’s physical performance is spot-on. He was trained by the real Phillippe Petit and his wire-walking always looks authentic, not to mention he does great work in conveying Petit’s boarder line-insane levels of enthusiasm for this act.
The Walk does let the entertaining heist story at its core get bogged down by some of the biographical elements, though it all builds to a fantastic finale. The choice to have Petit address the audience directly (standing in a less impressive CGI statue of liberty) in frequent cutaways was perhaps something it could have done without. Similar to Man on Wire, The Walk commendably does not ever go for a cheap emotional grab with a 9/11 reference, instead ending on a respectful, restrained note to offer tribute to the Twin Towers that inspired Petit so much.