At its best, The Walk is a reminder of Robert Zemeckis' extraordinary talent for staging spectacle. For a good twenty or thirty minutes towards the end (I would have checked my watch, but I was too busy holding my breath), the film dazzles and terrifies us with its portrait of the world's most daring high-wire act. Unfortunately, making it to that point occasionally feels like something of an endurance test: to get to the good stuff, you'll have to tolerate some poorly-drawn supporting characters, some groan-inducing stylistic choices and a genuinely irritating lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises).
The film is based on a true story (previously told in the esteemed documentary Man on Wire), and largely unfolds over the course of the early 1970s. Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit, a French street artist who dreams of traveling to America and performing a “wire walk” between the World Trade Center towers (which are still under construction when Philippe first sees a picture of them in a magazine). Unfortunately, he's nowhere near ready for such a challenge, so he seeks training from the cantankerous Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, Hugo), who runs a local circus and was a great high-wire artist back in his prime. Once he feels sufficiently prepared, Philippe, his new girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and his photographer pal Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony, French Kiss) all head to New York City to begin figuring out the details of the walk.
The early stretch of the film offers an abundance of big, flashy directorial choices which run the gamut from intriguing to obnoxious. Rather than letting us simply enjoy the sights and sounds of '70s Paris, Zemeckis switches everything to nostalgic black-and-white, floods the soundtrack with French covers of American pop songs and stages a meet-cute scene between Gordon-Levitt and Le Bon involving dueling mime acts. Paris!
Once we arrive in New York, The Walk turns into a heist movie of sorts. First, Philippe assembles his team of experts: in addition to Jean-Louis and Annie, he gains the support of a businessman (Steve Valentine, A Christmas Carol) who works in one of the twin towers, an electronics salesman (James Badge Dale, The Pacific), a pair of hippies (Ben Schwartz, Parks & Recreation and Benedict Samuel, The Walking Dead) and a mathematician (Cesar Domboy) with a crippling fear of heights. Once the recruiting missions are completed, Philippe and his crew begin a series of stealthy intel-gathering missions, hoping to find a way to reach the roof of one of the towers and set up their equipment without being discovered by the police.
It's clear that Zemeckis is aiming to create some real suspense with this material, but he never quite gets there. Maybe it's because the movie has promised us a wire walk and that we know we'll get there no matter what, or maybe it's the film's narration – provided by Gordon-Levitt, standing atop the Statue of Liberty and addressing the camera directly – never leaves us alone long enough to let us get lost in the moment. Gordon-Levitt brings a whole lot of enthusiasm to his performance (you can tell he's having a ball), but between his bad wig, his distracting blue contacts and his oh-so-exaggerated Pepe Le Pew accent, the performance has an unshakeable air of artificiality. I appreciate that actors like to push themselves, but one can't help but wish that the casting department had met the role halfway.
Still, at least Philippe – an aspirational daredevil with a twinkle in his eye and the soul of a poet – feels like a fully-formed character. The supporting characters are mostly one-note types: Kingsley is grumpy, Domboy is frightened, Valentine is perpetually amused, etc. The film is at its absolute worst when it focuses on the two hippies; unreliable stoner stereotypes who overuse words like “groovy” and “radical” to remind us that we're watching a period film. An actual line of dialogue: “Yeah, I'm in, especially since you'll be up high... get it... HIGH? Hahaha.” The cops who turn up towards the end of the film are just as bad; bumbling morons who seem to have wandered in from a Police Academy flick.
All of this would make The Walk one of Zemeckis' weakest films, but once the actual wire walk begins, the movie takes flight. I can't think of another movie that aims for quite the same blend of awe-inspiring majesty and white-knuckle tension that Zemeckis goes for here. Philippe moves across the wire with balletic grace and lush music floats across the soundtrack (including Beethoven's “Fur Elise”), but every time that camera reminds you of how thin that wire is or how far the drop is, the knot in your stomach tightens a little more. It's astonishing stuff, and even though Gordon-Levitt's narration continues needlessly filling us in on every thought going through Philippe's head, the images we're seeing are so arresting that everything else ceases to matter. There's an added resonance, of course, to the setting of this setpiece: this act of brave artistry literally supported by a pair of towers that have since become tragic symbols. The twin towers were impressive architectural achievements from the start, but the film argues – rather persuasively, I might add – that Philippe Petit gave them beauty.
Is The Walk a good film? No, not really. But for a little while, it's a great film. I leave it to you to decide whether that makes it a worthwhile investment of your time.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2015