“The carrots are cooked”
I’ve yet to watch the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, but it’s hard not to get swept up in its daredevil intrigue. Depicting the “artistic crime of the century,” Frenchman Philippe Petit illegally hung a wire between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and walked across multiple times to the dismay of New York City police officers on either side begging him to stop. Nik Wallenda may be the latest wire-walker to make international headlines—a man whose family has seen tragedy befall those taking up the vocation—but he does so with permission, media support, and notoriety. That’s not to say Petit wasn’t a known commodity in 1974 Europe, this stunt simply wasn’t performed on that continent. These 100-plus American stories called to him and he answered.
Looking to bring that experience to life on the big screen for the public to experience it like never before, Robert Zemeckis‘ The Walk is but one more notch on his technology-pushing belt. In glorious IMAX 3D the co-writer/director puts us on the wire, above it, and alongside the iconic performer on the rooftops of the towers providing him support. Only those who were there—Petit, his accomplices, and the police—had a front row seat like this because it was all done under the shroud of secrecy. To listen to tales and glimpse still photography is one thing, but to get one hundred feet higher than the Eiffel Tower for an impeccable recreation is another. This is what the IMAX format delivers: death-defying exhilaration.
The problem, however, is that The Walk isn’t a first-person amusement park show. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster cinematic event with A-list actors and state-of-the-art artistry. A story must therefore surround the spectacle and no one is better suited to tell this one than Petit himself courtesy of his book To Reach the Clouds. While providing source material for Zemeckis and Christopher Browne is crucial, using Petit himself (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a narrator on the top of the Statue of Liberty wasn’t quite as necessary. The choice feels jokey and kiddie in some regards, transforming the tense adventure of what’s to come into anecdote. Being rated PG, this may actually be intentional. Man on Wire is for the adults, this one for the family.
So it’s more companion piece than complete work. An alternate view of this crazy real-life event made to purely awe and entertain just like Petit did on that long ago August 6th. And in those terms it is truly a success with plenty of humor, ample suspense, and a touching memorial to those concrete behemoths taken down fourteen years ago on September 11th. More than just putting Petit back on that wire; Zemeckis has resurrected an architectural wonder. They were seen as blights while being built and occupied like most new things until an insane little man walked the void mere days away from the south tower’s opening to the public. He gave these monoliths beauty and made New Yorkers look up at the city’s latest landmark.
This is an inspiring bit of history and the final act showing Petit and his accomplices staging their “coup” is a caper in the most fun definition of the word. The characters are colorful—Benedict Samuel‘s stoner David, Ben Schwartz‘s paranoid Albert, and James Badge Dale‘s slick, scene-stealing pawn shop owner turned “director of personnel” J.P.—and the heist elements heightened with the danger of where they’re breaking in. Guards must be avoided, hands have to be greased, and legitimate fans (Steve Valentine‘s inside-man Barry Greenhouse) recruited in glee to help make it happen. There’s legitimate joy on display because we already know Petit succeeds. So we smile when the going gets tough because we anticipate the stroke of luck procuring them from their tight spot.
It’s everything surrounding this centerpiece that never quite lives up to the excitement. Gordon-Levitt tries his best with an infectious smile and exuberant enthusiasm in telling the tale, but the constant starts and stops from his narrator to his character definitely break up its natural flow. Sometimes it feels like we’re missing bits of information because we proceed through time without the necessary moments detail to earn the destination. Petit meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and suddenly they are together. In comes amateur photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and the next scene shows them as virtual brothers. The first two acts are literally check-stop introductions putting all Zemeckis’ ducks in a row. Unfortunately we sense it and only wish the coup would arrive sooner.
Le Bon, Sibony, and Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor (circus performer and wire-walking family patriarch Papa Rudy) do infuse some emotion with their obvious love for this young dreamer, but each instance is gone as soon as it appears. The only character I thought possessed an evolution besides the star was Jeff (César Domboy), a shy Frenchman who’s afraid of heights yet proves to be vital to Petit’s success. He’s still more or less a pawn inside the bigger picture, but he overcomes his own adversity in the process of providing support. The others don’t. Annie has the potential for her own relevant drama by the end too, but her individuality eventually proves an afterthought. The Walk is Petit’s story; everyone else is simply along for the ride.
Again, this is okay if the film’s goal is to deliver the amazing spectacle it does. The third act—with its flawed play-by-play educational mechanism talking down to audience members older than twelve at times—is worth the price of admission alone. This is especially true on IMAX screens enhancing its vertigo-inducing theatrics to full capacity. Man on Wire exists for those who want story nuance while The Walk complements it with the pure adrenaline rush of defying nature and common sense without the need to risk your own life in the process. Sometimes that’s enough. Just look at Gravity‘s success despite having little to no actual plot. In the end, how Petit got on the wire is of little consequence. It’s all about that first step.