“Why? This is the question people ask me the most.” These are the opening lines of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk; it’s also the question presumably asked by anyone who saw Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary that also told the story of high-wire walker Phillipe Petit’s 1974 stroll across a wire connecting the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. That film was affectionate and informative, gripping and tense; via plentiful yet tasteful dramatizations and stylized interviews with its affable subject and his accomplices, it told the story of Petit’s illegal walk with the tension and intricacy of a heist movie. In other words, it did what The Walk tries to do, but without the remove of actors,(often poorly) constructed dialogue, and special effects.
When asked about the documentary at the press conference following The Walk‘s media screening (in advance of its world premiere Saturday at the New York Film Festival), Zemeckis sounded a touch defensive. “Y’know, I started developing this, and bought Phillipe’s story, almost ten years ago — way before Man on Wire was even made,” he explained. “It’s a great documentary, and it lets you in to see what all the real characters were thinking and how they did this. But the thing I always wanted to do with Philip’s story was present the walk itself, and of course that couldn’t be done in the documentary because there’s no moving picture film of the walk ever recorded.” And I guess he’s right — there is “movie magic” to be made of that act. But is that reason enough to retell an entire story?
Based on all that comes before that sequence, not really. Just as in Man on Wire, Petit (here played, and well, by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tells his story to the camera — this time from atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty, because why not. He explains that he first learned of the towers while living in Paris and working as a street performer; it’s the kind of movie where he says he was in Paris, and then he spins a globe which we push in on to reveal text reading “Paris,” and then they cut to a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Anyway, he injures a tooth while performing (in a scene shot in black and white for no apparent reason other than a lot of French movies are in black and white, and which shifts to color with equally little justification). While in the dentist’s waiting room, he sees an illustration of the WTC in a magazine and is immediately overtaken by the notion of walking on a wire between them.
If you’ve seen Man on Wire, this will also sound very familiar; the first half of The Walk is basically a beat-by-beat recreation, disrupted only by the introduction of a bland romantic subplot. We learn of how he was taught wire-walking by a circus performer (Ben Kingsley, in cranky mentor mode), how he trained for the stunt with wires across open fields at escalating heights, how he went to New York and worked out a plan and put together a team.
All interesting — and previously well-documented. What Zemeckis brings to these scenes is nothing good: clunky dialogue, a twinkly Alan Silvestri score (as if there’s any other kind), comically on-the-nose music cues (Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” during Philip’s first trip to the WTC isn’t quite as bad as “Under the Bridge” during Flight’s shooting-up scene, but it’s a close call), and continuing his tradition of inexplicably axe-grinding against hippies, here in the form of a reasonably funny Ben Schwartz and his stock stoner sidekick, who says things like, “This is becoming a real bummer, man!” and “This scene is giving me really bad vibes!” (We haven’t heard “hippie” dialogue this authentic since the LSD episode of Dragnet.)
About an hour in and not a moment to soon, we arrive at the day of “the coup,” August 7, 1974, and to call what follows a sequence or set piece isn’t all that accurate; it’s the back half of the movie, and the better one. The human interactions between Petit and his team (the hippies who don’t abandon him, that is) are vibrantly human, especially when one who is afraid of heights ends up, of course, in several situations where that fear is particularly inconvenient. The ticking clock of daybreak, by which time the wire must be strung and ready, creates suspense before he even steps out, with an assortment of wandering guards and technical snafus slowing down the mission.
The walk itself takes up about the last quarter of the film (not quite real time, but close), and let’s be 100% clear on this point: it is a gripping, virtuoso stretch of film, a craftsman working at the top of his skill to dramatize another craftsman working at the top of his. Anyone who knows this story knows that Petit survives, and anyone who doesn’t know the story will likely figure out that if someone fell from a tightrope hung between the Twin Towers they’d have heard about it, but such logical concerns don’t enter into a viewing experience as visceral as this, particularly when viewed in IMAX 3-D (and yes, for once, you should pony up for those bells and whistles). The fact that Zemeckis generates any suspense at all, much less this kind of white-knuckle tension, out of a story whose outcome is well known speaks to the skill of his work here — the tautness of the edits, the convincing wizardry of the effects, the way he juggles tight close-ups, expansive wides, and point-of-view shots (even looking down, eek). It’s applause-worthy work, and a killer climax.
But a killer climax does not a motion picture make. Flavorwire contributor Noah Gittell wondered over the weekend if Zemeckis’ recent films were motivated less by storytelling and more by “getting to film a cool sequence,” and he’s probably onto something; Flight certainly only seems to exist for the sake of that harrowing almost-crash opening than any of the been-there fall-from-grace stuff that follows. And Zemeckis admitted as much Saturday — note that he said, “the thing I always wanted to do with Philip’s story was present the walk itself,” not “understand what would drive a man to take that kind of risk” or anything so boringly internal. (He also explained, “I’ve been searching, always searching, for stories that organically land themselves to being in 3D,” so there’s that.) And understanding Petit is, on reflection, where Zemeckis truly drops the ball, to the point that he even has the over-explaining Philippe narrator tell us, in the midst of that climactic sequence, that he was “feeling the most intense joy, the most profound satisfaction, I’ve ever felt in my life.” Hey, show not tell, Bob!
The real answer, of course, to the conundrum of why we need The Walk when they’ve already made Man on Wire is simple: far more people will see a studio-backed, mega-budget narrative feature starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and directed by Robert Zemeckis than will see a documentary, Oscar-winning or not. That’s the truth, and it’s also the most depressing thing about these two films.
The Walk premiered last weekend at the New York Film Festival. It opens Wednesday in limited release and goes wide on October 9.