Robert Zemeckis’s computer-generated spectacle about wire-walker Philippe Petit’s famous promenade between the Twin Towers lacks any sense of tension because everything about it feels fake
Two stars out of five
Starring; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale.
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 120 minutes
MPAA Rating: Parental Guidance
By Katherine Monk
It’s not what made Philippe Petit famous, but the man who crossed the chasm between the Twin Towers on a tightrope in 1974 also wrote a book called Why Knot? And yes. It’s all about various ways of tying things up and down, but it’s not your regular Book of Knots.
It’s a metaphysical lesson in what it means to make connections. He even tells us the word “religion” traces its roots to the Latin word ‘religare’—which means to tie with a cord.
“I am aware of the profound aspect of my profession—it consists of linking things with a tightrope,” writes Petit in the “Imagine” chapter. “I join separate pieces of land, I marry twin towers, I introduce cathedrals’ steeples to each other…. When I install my high wire, I rig a bridge—a bridge for one day—to walk above the abyss.”
Petit’s accomplishments have spiritual dimension and play directly to Nietzsche’s famous faith metaphor in Thus Spake Zarathustra—which actually features a tightrope walker inching his way between two towers before falling to his death and questioning his life purpose.
In the Nietzsche story, Zarathustra comforts the dying man by telling him there is no God, but that doesn’t matter. “You have made danger your vocation; there is nothing contemptible in that.”
The point was: You have to risk your faith in order to find truth and transcend.
It’s a beautiful line of images, and a weighty coil of philosophical thought, but Robert Zemeckis and the screenwriters can’t tie a single knot of plot from the narrative twine lying at their feet.
To say The Walk is boring isn’t entirely fair, even if it’s accurate, because there’s so much going wrong at every single moment, that a critic can only gawk at the disaster until even the sound of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s painful French accent starts to fade into the ambient blur of badness.
Cast as Petit, Gordon-Levitt probably could have pulled the whole thing off if he’d been given a decent script, but that’s where The Walk falls down before it even starts. Using Petit’s own book “To Reach the Clouds” and its Oscar-winning documentary adaptation from James Marsh, Man on Wire, as its central sources, Zemeckis tells us a story we already know: In the middle of the night, shortly before the World Trade Centre opened its doors to the general public, Petit and a small band of riggers made their way inside, found their way to the top of the 110-storey buildings, and strung a high wire between the north and south towers.
It’s a great suspense story that Zemeckis could have phrased as a heist movie with an existential twist, but he plays it like some sticky mix of cheesy French romance and American schmaltz – with a voiceover and flashbacks.
Petit’s character is never truly developed, and Sir Ben Kingsley’s appearance as the wise but grumpy mentor, Papa Rudy, is the lumpy pastry around Petit’s half-cooked wiener.
At one point, we watch Petit stand up against shining stainless steel girders in the twilight, and if this shot was supposed to be the “love song” to the late twins, the only thing missing was a thrust and grind.
It all feels fake, and I haven’t even mentioned the much-yapped-about CGI.
The computer-generated images in The Walk were supposed to be worth the cost of admission. Full-on 3D digital recreations of the Twin Towers were designed to take us back to a kinder, gentler time – before we watched our way of life tumble to the ground in a sudden burst of dust and disbelief.
But even with a complete recreation of one 200 square-foot rooftop and acres of green screen, the movie never finds the breathless quality found in Man on Wire. That film had more impact with one still image and Petit’s own voice than Zemeckis’s entire circus.
To see the failure as a simple let-down with the computer fakery is missing the point, because even bad effects can’t kill a good story, and while this tale had every chance at greatness, the writers failed to walk the abyss.
They took no risks. The script is boilerplate cheese coated in oily streaks of red, white and blue. Petit’s character is clown-like at best, and the rest of the characters are cardboard, despite the ample talents of Gordon-Levitt and Canadian co-star Charlotte Le Bon, who plays the romantic interest.
Even in the documentary, though little is said, you got the feeling Petit was a fascinating narcissist with a strange compulsion to create physical poetry using his flesh and mortar façades.
The fact that he seems so boring and trite isn’t a function of the glowing pixels that surround him, but a function of the empty feeling left by an unsatisfying script that lacks character development, dramatic structure and any sense of emotional authenticity.
In short, there is nothing holding the film together. There is no tension, and without it, you cannot walk the wire.
“I am of the opinion that all ropes–fiber ropes, wire ropes–are alive,” writes Petit in Why Knot? “They have been smiling at me for more than fifty years, drawing for me magnificent curves upon which I promenade with apparent ease and authentic awe.”
If only Zemeckis had been able to capture a fraction of that authentic awe and poetry on screen, The Walk could have conquered the abyss instead of tumbling ungracefully to the ground, covered in green paint, just inches below.