Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis (“Flight”)
Written by: Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express”) and Christopher Browne (“Operation Barn Owl”)
In 1974, a French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) snuck onto the construction site of the World Trade Center towers, hung a cable between them and performed an illegal high-wire act 1,350 feet above New York City streets. It was an astonishing feat, and was the subject of a documentary called “Man on Wire,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009. With that kind of inherent drama, it’s surprising that director Robert Zemeckis couldn’t manufacture any in his biographical film “The Walk.”
Putting on a French accent and some blue contact lenses, Gordon-Levitt does his part and gives a solid, but rather unspectacular performance. It’s the most grounded performance of the bunch and other than an underutilized Ben Kingsley, is one of the few characters with any nuance at all. The others feel like unpolished archetypes that only serve narrative purpose, including a really bad interpretation of some unreliable stoners.
The tone of “The Walk” is by far its most troublesome aspect. The opening act of the film feels like rejected Disney material, complete with a lame meet-cute and imagery so stereotypically French that all it was missing was someone riding a bicycle with a basket full of baguettes. The film then switches gears and becomes more of a generic caper, which only pushes more towards silliness. There is, of course, some seriousness involved in the wire act itself, but the film feels overly family friendly, light, and tame.
The tone is also unfortunate because Petit is not established as a particularly talented or even competent wirewalker. In fact, much of the set-up of the film shows Petit clumsily falling for comedic effect, or struggling. It’s difficult to see him as a man with an incredible gift to pull off an amazing stunt when the guy is made to look like he couldn’t balance himself on a sidewalk. Other than the obvious point of safety, nothing ever really feels at stake.
While Zemeckis was incredibly successful in creating a visceral visual experience by using 3D to create a sense of depth and heights, “The Walk” has little else that is redeeming. Its goofy tone that shifts into drama during the walk itself does a terrible job of setting the table and even the wire-walking scenes, while visually impressive, are repetitive and anti-climactic. It’s a shame that a film about a tightrope walker could lack so much balance.