Line Dancing
by Nick Pinkerton

The Walk
Dir. Robert Zemeckis, U.S., Sony

It was the greatest daredevil publicity stunt that New York City had seen since Steve Brodie jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge—assuming that that ever actually happened. On the morning of Wednesday, August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit, a 24-year-old French aerialist, toed his way out onto a tightrope suspended between the two 110-story towers of the World Trade Center and crossed the void between the north and south tower, over and over again. Among the accomplices who had aided Petit in infiltrating the WTC was his official photographer, who recorded the walk for posterity in still images, but no motion picture footage appears to have been shot. Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk attempts, among other things, to redress this oversight.

If you conclude, as I have, that The Walk is on balance a “good” movie, then there is a great deal that you will have to forgive, forget, or otherwise make peace with. For instance, the introduction of protagonist Petit whooshing through a sugary, Amélie version of Paris on his unicycle; the film’s whitewashing of Petit’s character, so that it feels nearer to the children’s book based on his exploits than to James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire; the introduction of stoner comic relief characters so arbitrarily sketched that they might as well be placeholders reading “Comic Relief TK”; a tonally miscalculated encounter with an ominous red-eyed seagull; and the fact that Petit is played by the smug, dreadful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who narrates the movie from a perch on Lady Liberty’s torch, speaking in a French accent achieved, I assume, through drinking a quart of heavy cream between takes.

On the other hand, if these demerits seem altogether too much burden for any movie to bear, there are a great many virtues that you must ignore in order to call The Walk a wholly failed film. Following high-wire walker Petit from France to New York City in his monomaniacal pursuit of his mad fantasy, the movie shares its subject’s single-minded dedication to the cause, and this lends it a propulsive momentum—coming in at a couple of minutes north of two hours, it moves like a dream, sped along on fluid sequence shots which keep up the pace from one scene to the next as though passing along a baton. It is an appropriately taut piece of work, and when dealing with matters of nuts-and-bolts process—the practical exigencies of stringing a heavy 131-foot length of steel cable across a vast gulf in midair, from smuggling the equipment into a well-guarded building to anchoring the securing guy lines—it is compulsively watchable, pulling the viewer into the conspiratorial huddle. If you happen to believe, as I do, that the scene in which Michael Caine supervises the dragging of jeeps up a cliff face with winch and cord in André de Toth’s Play Dirty (1968) is something like the quintessence of cinema, than all of this rigging is so much catnip. Finally, the movie keeps up such bounce and roll that for significant stretches of its runtime, I wholly forgot my distaste for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

While nigglingly attentive to the physical details of the heist orchestrated by Petit and his band of compatriots, from its scale model inception to the matinee high-wire performance itself, The Walk itself is largely comprised of nothing more tactile than pixels. It’s the seventeenth feature by Zemeckis, who spent the first decade of the 21st century dickering with motion capture CG animation technology before making a return to live-action with 2012’s Flight. Terms like “animation” and “live-action” are increasingly less useful today, however, for the boundaries between these two poles of cinema have blurred so much as to become indistinguishable in those same years, a transformation that Zemeckis has been instrumental in urging along. Conjuring a disappeared Manhattan of over forty years ago, reproducing Petit’s walk in a Montreal soundstage, and even engineering some in-shot transitions between scenes, The Walk contains nary a frame that hasn’t been digitally sweetened in some way—and of course I use “frame” in the same sense that we still refer to new digital movies as films, a metonym that persists long after the object that it refers to has ceased to be.

The weightlessness of CG animation, for which it has been sometimes criticized, is part of the point here. Like 2012’s bike messenger chase picture Premium Rush, The Walk highlights Gordon-Levitt’s bantamweight physique, rather than trying to sell him as a viable bruiser. There is an aspect of preening self-regard to Gordon-Levitt that’s prevented me from ever particularly warming to him, though this isn’t necessarily a demerit in playing Petit, a man who rarely pauses to give a thought to anyone or anything outside of his walk, which he, with his flair for infectious melodrama, encourages his co-conspirators to refer to as “the coup.” Gordon-Levitt’s Petit has the requisite brio, though one wishes that the director of Used Cars had also located something of the snake-oil salesman in his star. As for Petit’s gang, nothing in their presentation discourages Petit’s apparent view of them as cogs in his grand machine—for the most part they could be summarized in a few words, like The Acrophobic One (César Domboy), The Guy Who Takes Pictures (Clément Sibony), The Inside Man with a Florid Moustache (Steve Valentine), or The Understanding Girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon). A couple of the supporting players, both in roles with no analog in Man on Wire, do manage to inject personality into their telegraphed roles, notably James Badge Dale as Jean-Pierre, a double-denim-clad French expat who’s been in New York long enough to acquire a downtown brogue and the nickname J.P., and Ben Kingsley, all cantankerous twinkling as Czech “Papa” Rudy, patriarch of a family of wire-walkers who imparts his lifetime of knowledge to Petit, given to communicating in maxims such as “There is no show without an audience.”

Zemeckis might be inclined to agree with Papa Rudy on this point, for he has striven through the years to be not only an artist but also a popular artist, and his box-office track record largely confirms the success of this ambition. The only recent blip in Zemeckis’s run of profitability was his bleakly funny 2007 Beowulf, a film every bit as baroquely plotted as The Walk is straightforward. (And considerably more circumspect in its approach to the subject of self-mythologizing.) More recently, Zemeckis has been working with modest budgets—The Walk’s listed $35 million price tag is a fraction of that attributed to any of his CG films—though he still knows the value of a big set-piece, like the barrel-roll crash landing that occurs early in Flight. The Walk, like Flight, deals with a protagonist whose life is largely defined by a single feat of derring-do, though it inverts the structure of the earlier film, locating the payoff at the end rather than dealing with the comedown of its aftermath. Consequently The Walk seems a more optimistic, upbeat film, though it should be said that it does end with the disbanding of the coup’s co-conspirators and the hero left alone in New York with his towers, the audience’s knowledge of their future destruction the film’s structuring absence, though it is more directly averred to here than in Man on Wire. (Both films have been referred to as “caper” pictures, and the rather innocent aims of the conspiracy depicted serves as a rebuff or exorcism of the later, fatal conspiracy.)

Petit’s moment of truth is also Zemeckis’s, and as soon as Petit steps into the ether, the director’s sense of poise and showmanship are hugely evident. During the course of Petit’s eight back-and-forth passes between the towers, Zemeckis and cameraman Dariusz Wolski make free use of the simultaneously swooping and craning motions that appear throughout the film, gliding past Petit as he stands suspended over the void, while a few punctuating close-ups keep the viewer aware of every potential danger—Petit’s wounded foot, leaking blood; a cavaletti straining against its burden; a gathering storm front and increasing police presence—which might spell disaster. Of course we know that Petit will survive, for as he walks the line, we hear him vociferously narrating his moment of triumph, just as he narrates rather more of the film than is either necessary or desirous. This is Zemeckis the popular entertainer at his most over-solicitous, getting in his own way to make certain that no viewer is left behind or confused by motives, not only filling in any perceived gaps with voiceover but also glomming those gaps up with verbiage. For some to whom Man on Wire is a sacred text, the very act of making a film like The Walk may similarly seem an act of imposture, explicitly depicting what previously had been gracefully elided. At no point does The Walk display a delicate touch, but it is no less true to its subject in its way than Marsh’s film, hectoring in the manner of an urban attention-getter trying to gather a crowd. There are moments when one regrets heeding its call to step right up, but when Petit steps right out, all is forgiven.