Robert Zemeckis and I are friends only some of the time. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to attend the 50th New York Film Festival (bragging), but unfortunate enough to attend the premiere of Zemeckis's film, Flight, starring Denzel Washington. Although it eventually opened to moderately positive reviews, I thought Flight was a turgid, overwrought mess of a movie that betrayed Washington's reined-in performance with otherwise broad caricatures and melodramatic schlock unbefitting the alcoholic-focused subject matter. When John Goodman's drug-dealing fixer walks on screen to "Sympathy for the Devil," I had reached my critical mass for bullshit. I gave it an excoriating review that pulled in a lot of traffic for the website for which I wrote at the time.
So, The Walk. I'm not terribly sure we need this movie, especially in light of Man on Wire, the terrific, Oscar-winning documentary about the same exact subject that came out in 2008. There's something about it that feels overly sanitized, the initial red flag of which comes from its PG rating. I can't remember the last time I saw a non-animated PG-rated film. Part of this is indebted to the unnecessary and confusing narration provided by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's protagonist, the real-life high-wire artist, Philippe Petit. The film begins with him standing at the top of the Statue of Liberty as he recounts the unbelievable story of his rise in France as a circus act to his endeavor to suspend a tightrope between the Twin Towers and walk across it. That he succeeds is a matter of public record (and the subject of that documentary), so we're left instead with the opportunity to revel in Gordon-Levitt's performance and the technical wizardry so oft-employed by Zemeckis.
Something I've become accustomed not to needing in films is just the sort of narration that chokes the momentum of this film. This is perhaps because I am an adult who doesn't need someone to spoon-feed information to him. Gordon-Levitt does his best to give some character and charm to this thankless task, but his approach can be saccharine at best, and overwhelmingly unnecessary at worst. That the film also insists on cutting back to him standing against one of the most unconvincing portrayals of the New York skyline I've seen in a long time does the film no favors. In fact, I'd wager that the studio, Sony, decided that the film needed more of a guiding hand, so Gordon-Levitt was shanghaied back in front of a green screen to force-feed us the exposition pie baked up by Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter, Christopher Browne.
The narration rankles, and the pace of the narrative, to quote Zero Punctuation's Yahtzee, is paced like an ant pushing a brick across a desert. Although the film is 123 minutes long (brisk by Zemeckis's self-indulgent standards), it feels as though a solid 15-20% could have been excised from it with pruning shears. We see the token inspirational event of Petit's life as he visits the traveling circus as a young boy, becoming entranced by the tightrope walker's daring feats. He grows into a wildly unconvincing, teenaged JGL, who disappoints his family and befriends Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, sporting the Fedora of Phoning-It-In Actors). Papa Rudy gives Petit some old-fashioned schooling on the proper method of rigging a tightrope, and Petit encounters his future lover and fellow street performer, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). Petit becomes inspired by the in-construction World Trade Center, and makes it his goal to walk between them.
Gordon-Levitt provides most of the main attractions in this film, when he's not irritating us to death with the smarmy narration. His Petit is manic, paranoid, difficult and constantly effusive, much like the man we see in Man on Wire. In contrast to some of Gordon-Levitt's quietly brooding performances in the work of Christopher Nolan, we see his sunnier, if more frustrating, side here. Neither the script nor the actor give Petit many layers, but he is nothing if not watchable throughout the whole film. A collection of character actors make up the supporting cast, played by Flight-alumnus James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz from Parks and Recreation, and Steve Valentine. Le Bon has the thrilling opportunity to play The Woman Behind the Man, who is superhumanly supportive until she's not, and is usually staring at her hands while men talk when she's not calming Petit down. Kingsley continues to squander decades of good will, something he seems incapable of avoiding unless Martin Scorsese directs him.
We've seen this story, told way better, in the doc I keep harping on about. So why does The Walk exist? It's right there in the title. I saw this movie in IMAX 3D, an experience that was confoundingly not worth the $16 ticket until the last twenty minutes. Once Zemeckis gets us to the top of the south tower, a process that takes agonizingly long (I sorta fell asleep for a minute or two), the movie's raison d'etre emerges. Zemeckis pays lip service to caring about humans through the thinly characterized Difficult Men he always seems to write, but what really interests him is technical innovation (see his maligned, triple-branched foray into motion capture-exclusive filmmaking). And when the constant talk-talking of the characters ceases, Alan Silvestri's twinkling piano shuts up, and the camera takes over, you know you're in the hands of an artist in his element. Petit's actual walk between the towers is thrilling and satisfying in the way that all the trailers promised. It's just unfortunate that it comes on the heels of an extended prelude of mediocrity.
When The Walk fires on all cylinders, it's easy to imagine how much better it would have been as a short film, and not the bloated product we have in front of us. And once that movie gets made, I will jump on my titanium-plated, rocketship-pig and blast off into space, because that's equally likely to happen.