One of the biggest issues with Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” the film about Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center, is evident in the very opening sequence.
The film opens with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, donning a comically thick French accent and actually speaking quite a bit of French) addressing us, the audience, as he prepares to take us through his incredible journey firsthand.
At first, the camera is framed eerily close to his face, but once the camera pulls away, we realize Petit is standing in the torch of the (poorly computer-generated) Statue of Liberty, with the twin towers framed prominently in the background. The film cuts back to this sequence throughout, and Petit tells us how he feels every single step of the way.
By repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, Zemeckis is doubling down on the audience’s interest in Petit. Gordon-Levitt’s accented narration is the film’s main narrative drive, which feels like a safety net to ensure that the audience is properly thrilled and impressed with Petit’s passion and achievement. This is wildly unnecessary.
A film about one of the most daring and memorable feats in New York City history shouldn’t have to do any heavy lifting to engage an audience. A better film would show that Petit was a madman determined to achieve to dreams, not let him yell it at the camera.
Any time “The Walk” gets you in its hold, Petit is seconds away from interrupting the flow to tell you how impressed you should be. He’s constantly dictating his feelings and talking about his dream in an attempt to instill a sense of wonder that’s already inherently there.
This irritating narration is rather disappointing, because when the film works, it works quite well. It’s at its best when it circumvents these generic “true story” pitfalls and just lets the characters breathe.
Technically speaking, the film is a mixed bag. Some of the CGI is just terrible (the aforementioned opening sequence is pretty rough, as well as a weird scene with a bird), but once things kick into high gear during the finale, the effects are incredibly spellbinding.
“The Walk” culminates in a sequence that is undeniably visceral and an absolute technical marvel. It’s hard to not get caught up in the spectacle as you’re dangling 110 stories off the ground along with Petit, especially in IMAX 3D. I still despise 3D as a general rule, but I was happy to be getting the full experience once the titular walk actually began.
Zemeckis is a seasoned filmmaking veteran, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see him lack the faith to fully commit here. The material is so ripe for a blockbuster experience, and while the last 30 minutes definitely deliver that, the film’s many misfires really weigh it down. The acclaimed documentary “Man on Wire” is still the definitive take on this story.
Watch the trailer below.
“The Walk” is now playing on IMAX 3D & 3D screens and opens in theaters nationwide October 9.