Those who’ve seen James Marsh’s superior 2008 documentary Man on Wirewill be familiar with most of the narrative territory explored in Robert Zemeckis’s faithful recreation The Walk. Detailing the astonishing 1974 tightrope walk performed by Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) between the newly-constructed World Trade Center towers, Zemeckis’s film operates in three ready-made segments. The first, and weakest, traces the young performer’s burgeoning fascination with the art of the high wire, while also introducing us to Zemeckis’s choice of framing device: a beaming, post-walk Petit (luxuriating atop the Statue of Liberty, no less) narrating his own story. Adding little more than a few expositional platitudes, Zemeckis’s ill-advised bid to capture the spirit of showmanship to which his subject so conformed works only to demonstrate a fundamental miscalculation. While the portrayal may well be in line with Petit’s sensibilities, inundating the audience with personality histrionics does not endear us to the character; instead it only makes us impatient for the payoff we know is coming. All intonations of the script would seem to suggest we’re to read this character as the tortured artist sort, a bit petulant but redeemable in his unflagging drive. Casting Gordon-Levitt, an actor often defined by his earnestness, only works to emphasize Petit’s most obnoxious qualities, resulting in a character who comes off as merely grating.
When Petit finally steps onto his cable…The Walk becomes a different film entirely.
The Walk’s middle section is also its longest. Improving on the lazily hewn opening act, it channels the tonal appeal of a heist film as Petit recruits accomplices for his “coup” and enters the planning stages. Part of the fun here is reveling in the transparent true-story origins, particularly in the equal measure of cunning and dumb luck that went into pulling this off. But Zemeckis really hits his stride as the second act blends into the last, culminating in thrilling sequences of preparation on the tower rooftop as the dawning light imbues the final groundwork with added tension. When Petit finally steps onto his cable, sans safety rope or carabiner, and at nearly 1400 feet above the ground, The Walk becomes a different film entirely. Utilizing 3D more impressively than any film in recent memory, Zemeckis elegantly balances compositions that are at one moment serene, framing Petit against the New York skyline, and the next exhilarating, his camera nosediving down the tower to find the pedestrian spectators below. Zemeckis explores Petit as both singular artist and abstract concept, alternating fixed close-ups of an emotionally vacillating Petit on the wire with a worm’s eye view of a nearly static shadow figure one hundred stories above the ground. It’s during this climactic performance that familiarity with Man on Wire becomes a much greater blessing. The ability to witness the spectacle unfold without cynicism or suspicion, knowing that Petit truly accomplished these feats — whirling, dancing, lying on his back — is a cinematic gift to Zemeckis. To have one’s stomach still encouraged into knots and be tangibly overcome by vertigo is a testament to his immersive, visceral accomplishment. While Marsh’s film mostly outshines Zemeckis’s on a contextual and narrative level, The Walk recreates the terrifying, breathtaking experience in a way that the original footage could not, and in doing so, Zemeckis has crafted the yardstick by which future 3D efforts will be measured.