Despite their popularity in those all-important Asian markets, 3-D and Imax are probably not the future of movies — I suspect we’ll one day experience most films via virtual reality — but in the right hands, they’re spectacular tools for, well, spectacle; for any saga that benefits from James Cameron–like GIGANTISM or strives to induce vertigo. You could hardly find a more vertiginous scenario than the Frenchman Philippe Petit’s highly illegal 1974 wire-walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which — as rendered by director Robert Zemeckis in The Walk — will make you feel as if you’re plummeting, even if (it’s not really a spoiler) Petit himself remains upright.
Petit narrates the film in the person of the American Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose Franche ack-sant will certainly trigger a torrent of croaks from our friends across the pond. But Gordon-Levitt’s body is a visual coup. He has a supernaturally noodly shape, long and bulge-free and vertically pointed, with a dancer’s lift that gracefully tests the laws of gravity. (He makes his black turtleneck a second skin.) Throughout the film, he speaks to us — impishly — from the torch of France’s gift to the U.S., the Statue of Liberty, the towers visible behind him, and looks far more at home than he does on terra firma.
Zemeckis isn’t too at home on Earth, either. The problem — not fatal — with The Walk is that the narrative wire droops between the movie’s opening and final sequences. Zemeckis has had his head in technology for a long time, and though he wrote the script with Christopher Browne (based on Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds), he isn’t fully engaged by the scenes between Petit and his musician girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon), whom we meet-cute when he lures away her sidewalk audience with his acrobatics. Is the point is to make us feel as marooned as Petit?
Whatever Zemeckis means, Gordon-Levitt’s Pepé Le Pew intonations aren’t just a minor annoyance: They also slow down the pace of the scenes. Petit tells his colleagues to speak English because he’s going to America and “needs to practice” and you think, No, it’s because the multiplex audience won’t pay to see movies with subtitles. The vibe is so strained that you’ll be grateful for Ben Kingsley’s hambone turn as Petit’s wire-walking mentor because Kingsley talks fast and has a couple of good moments directing Petit to bow to audiences in the noblest way — on the inside.
Comparisons to James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire don’t do any favors for Zemeckis’s storytelling. Marsh tells Petit’s story using tricks from fictional heist pictures. The movie is part talking heads; part period footage of Petit honing his balance and pulling off lesser — but still breathtaking — stunts, like a walk over the Sydney Harbor Bridge; and part Mission: Impossible–style reenactments. He actually builds momentum better than Zemeckis does, and the real Petit is more fabulously silly than Gordon-Levitt: He talks of seizing the space, defying society's soul-killing laws, defining oneself through action. The Twin Towers — which became Petit’s idée fixe — would be his way of telling the universe, “Monsieur, I exist!”
But even that documentary recedes when Gordon-Levitt’s cohorts shoot a rope from one tower to the next, crank it up so it’s nice and taut, and watch their nutty friend prepare for launch.
My impressions of The Walk’s last half-hour and change are based on seeing it in Imax and 3-D, and it would be a shame to do otherwise. As with Gravity, pay the surcharge and sit close. It’s cheaper than Six Flags.
You watch Gordon-Levitt gently put a slim foot on the wire and you know — you know — he’s going to fall, even if history says otherwise and Petit is narrating the movie. Your eyes search for a stationary object and don’t find it. You think, No one could possibly walk 140 feet on something so thin over this much ... air. I was goofy enough in my 20s to put on a parachute and jump out of an airplane, and hovering over Gordon-Levitt over the void brought all the crazy sensations back. My sympathetic imagination was so engaged that I was literally afraid to turn my head left or right for fear of losing my balance, and when Zemeckis swiveled the camera, I caught sight of people in front of me clinging to their companions. Does Zemeckis downplay the wind? Perhaps. But I’m not sure my stomach could have handled wind. As it is, viewers are reportedly getting sick.
In Man on Wire, Petit mocks the reporters’ questions that followed his walk, which boiled to, “Why?” He says, “Very American finger-snapping … I did somezing magnificent and mysterious and I got a ‘why,’ and ze beauty of eet is zat I don’t have a ‘why.’” The Walk sanctifies his why-lessness even more than Man on Wire.
And it sanctifies the World Trade Center. You will ask, How can we gaze on those towers and not see the planes hit them and remember the people who did fall to their deaths? The answer is we do see and remember those things, every single time the towers appear onscreen. Although Zemeckis never suggests it, I suspect the reason that the towers no longer stand was their power to seize the world’s imagination. They meant one thing to a young Frenchman, who dreamed of taking his place between the mightiest edifices in the world’s mightiest metropolis. They meant another, not-unrelated thing to other men with other belief systems.
Does The Walk acknowledge the towers’ ultimate fate? Yes, in the last few seconds, obliquely and exquisitely. By some standards, this isn’t much of a movie. But it is a hell of a monument.