'The Walk' Is a Movie That Stumbles Toward Great Heights

Anyone who lived through 9/11 will feel a chill while viewing Robert Zemeckis' film about Phillippe Petit, the high-wire artist who walked between the Twin Towers when they were new.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 'The Walk.' An eccentric elf.Credit: Courtesy
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

The Walk Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Brown, based on the memoir by Philippe Petit; with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley

The past and its magical recreation have been part of the more interesting movies of director Robert Zemeckis, such as the clever “Back to the Future” trilogy and his best-known film, the Oscar winner “Forrest Gump,” where Zemeckis inserted the hero’s fictional character into archive footage alongside historical figures. In his new film, “The Walk,” Zemeckis reconstructs a vanished icon of the recent past – the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. On one of its more interesting levels, “The Walk” salutes those towers and is a kind of lament for their disappearance under circumstances that the movie does not mention, because it really does not have to. I can’t remember another film that explored such a historically significant physical symbol after it ceased to exist, and this makes “The Walk,” despite its considerable flaws, a work of some distinction.

Seeing the Towers where they once stood, as occasionally happens when you watch older television shows (such as “Friends”), provides an immediate temporal orientation, a kind of notation in a historical calendar, and it always sends a kind of “before and after” chill down my spine (eventually, the two buildings disappeared from “Friends,” too). Zemeckis brings back the sight of the Towers not to tell the story of what happened to them, to America and to the world on September 11, 2001, but to take us back to 1974, when the towers were still a new feature in the New York landscape and in human consciousness. “The Walk” celebrates the memory of those buildings as well as cinema’s ability to recreate them (and then, in a beautiful concluding shot, to make them disappear again into the darkness).

“The Walk” tells the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit, who on the morning of August 7, 1974 stretched a wire between the rooftops of the two towers, which were then the tallest buildings in the world, and proceeded to walk between them. Given that the movie is about a man famous for his balance, it may sound a bit awkward to describe it as “stumbling”; but the movie does stumble through its first part, when it reaches its peak and then takes off (another inappropriate metaphor in this context).

Because “The Walk” is an American movie and because it stars an actor that I usually like, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it needs to be in English, which throws some unfortunate obstacles in its path. First, Gordon-Levitt, who occasionally addresses the camera directly while standing on the top of the Statue of Liberty, is required to speak English with a rather implausible and inconsistent French accent. Second, because the hero intends to do his high-wire act in New York, he too frequently demands that his French friends help him practice his English – a contrivance that at times becomes ridiculous.

In general, the first part of “The Walk,” which is set in France and shows how Petit came to be a high-wire artist, is fairly prosaic. We never really get to know or understand him; we don’t know what motivates him to become first a street acrobat, and then a man who walks on a wire high over an abyss. Petit does make a clumsy joke on the subject early in the movie, in French and English, refusing to use the word “death” and insisting that for him, walking on a high-wire means “life.” But it isn’t satisfying, even if we do understand what he means.

What we are watching is an obsession, but neither “The Walk” nor Gordon-Levitt’s performance manage to convey it. With his somewhat exotic features and slender build, Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as a kind of eccentric elf. His performance has no layers; it all unfolds on a single plane. Petit’s obsessive quality must have affected his relationship with the friends who shared his adventures, as well as with the street musician (Charlotte Le Bon) who serves as the movie’s love object. But “The Walk” shows us none of that; nor does it comment on how egocentric and egomaniacal a person like that must be. The lack of depth is especially obvious in this kind of movie, where we know the ending in advance.

Elements of a heist

“The Walk” shifts gears when Petit and his friends arrive in New York to carry out their mission. Zemeckis wisely follows the preparation of their secret, illegal plan as if this were a heist movie, with the Twin Towers standing in for the bank that the gang is planning to hit. The same strategy is also evident in the scenes showing the nights that Petit and his friends spend on the rooftops of the towers before the actual stunt; we encounter elements of a heist picture, such as the efforts to evade the security guard or the appearance of a mysterious figure whose identity Petit does not know to this day. Even if these moments do not create much suspense – we do know how the story will end, after all – they are entertaining and even possess the poetic quality of good heist movies.

The real poetry of “The Walk,” however, emerges when the sun comes up and Petit, after a few mishaps connecting the wire