“The Walk” is an okay movie for about an hour or so, and then it ramps up and spends most of the second half of its runtime being great, though with caveats. To simply compare this to the excellent documentary “Man on Wire” is to miss the point of this dramatic recreation of events told first in memoir form and then via nonfiction film, as this is a movie all about making you feel what it is like to do what happens, how it would have been perceived, what it would have been like for the audience to be the man on the wire. It is a just a bit of a shame, then, that “The Walk,” in setting out to accomplish this, instead beats the audience about the head with its insistence on the feeling of creating such a feat, the transcendence that we are supposed to feel, shoving down our throats the notion that this is important. This could have been whittled down a bit and reshaped and it could have then become a great piece of moviemaking, but instead we have to settle for something that is merely good, with problems that it regularly threatens to overcome and rise above but never truly does.
Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a pixie haircut and blue contacts) is a street performer, a juggler, mime, tight rope walker, he loves to perform for people and it helps if he can make a little money doing it so he can continue on his journey, a journey which involves him obsessively looking around for places to string up his wire so he can do his tight rope thing. One day by chance he sees an article about the construction of the Twin Towers in New York City, at the time the tallest buildings in the world, and he knew at once that he had to cross those buildings on a wire, and his dream was born. He then set about to make this a reality, meeting people and recruiting them as “accomplices” to his “artistic coup,” and figuring out piece by piece how he would even be able to pull off such a feat.
The first hour or so of the movie is alright enough, pleasant even, as Petit gathers what he needs and enthusiastically puts his plan into motion. He runs into relatively few and minor problems along the way, and he manages to keep things under control, which makes this movie weirdly drama free for a good long while. He gets into one argument with his tight rope walking mentor (Ben Kingsley) over a safety precaution and then they kiss and make up, and there are two scenes in which Petit doubts himself, but only one of them has any real resonance to it. His accomplices tell him he is crazy for trying this, he agrees and smiles and says “Yes, I am crazy, I must be!” with a thick phony baloney French accent, and everyone is all like “okay, looks like we’re doing this.” It is all done okay enough, it is just kind of boring.
Especially since we already know that he is going to make it on to that wire. Hell, it’s in the title of the movie, and we see it in the posters and commercials and trailers, so much of the outcome is a foregone conclusion entering into the movie. And then when the movie starts and we are shown Petit looking right at the camera and telling us the story of how he pulled this off, then we know two things: 1) he goes through with it and B) he lives. So spoiler alert via opening narration, he lives. Unless we think it is the ghost of Philippe Petit providing the voiceover, in which case, we are dumb. Which is why it is impressive that even though we know these two things right at the top of the film the final thirty or forty minutes in which Petit and his crew set out in a heist-like fashion to sneak in to the buildings, make their way to the top and set up the wire is all so tense and electric and fraught with danger and disaster. And when Petit takes his first few steps on to the wire, the feeling of being up there with him is palpable, and it makes everything that came before it totally worth it because it is all so well done.
Which is why it is a bummer that this Petit voiceover narration never stops, so instead of just showing us what happens, we are also being spoon fed Petit’s thoughts and feelings and motives, and it would have been nice if all of this could have been left visual because that is the strong suit of “The Walk” in the first place. Instead of the movie showing us how this was a transcendent experience, instead of getting this feeling across to us, we are simply told it is transcendent, and that kind of deflates that particular bubble. And yet, though we know this guy isn’t going to fall off this wire because come on now there is no way in hell anyone would pony up the money to make such an expensive film about a guy failing and falling to his gross death, this is still a white knuckle experience, as he soft shoes his way out to this wire, which isn’t even constructed 100% correctly, and makes several trips back and forth and does little tricks like kneeling on his balancing pole thingy and laying back on the wire like he was going to sleep. The movie built up to this whole sequence, from heist to walk, and it is all pretty damn great and electrifying.
Also much like the documentary, “The Walk” also serves as a kind of love letter to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, as we have all now seen countless images of them being destroyed and coming down, but here we have a movie about them going up, and what those buildings would ultimately mean for the citizens of New York. In this context, these buildings represent a dream achieved, twin beacons of hope and aspirations, and while alluding to the ultimate fate of those towers and our world at the very end, the movie strains to reach the level of profundity, and if by golly they didn’t almost make it, though not quite. The very strong last thirty minutes of the movie would have had more impact if the first part of the film wasn’t so cartoony and hokey, because how else do you depict a 1970s Frenchman other than by showing him wheeling around on a unicycle with a turtleneck stealing baguettes from tables in the cutest little Parisian square imaginable?
Anyway, so the movie’s not great, but it is still good, definitely good enough to see on a big screen because the ending of the movie practically demands it. The movie itself is a high wire act and though it wobbles and shakes and looks precarious at times, it makes it across with a confident flourish.