By Ray Pride
Climbing the steep, steep stairs to the top of Navy Pier IMAX to see “The Walk” in 3D, I anticipated, nay, hoped for kinetic, gyroscopic, balletic, vertiginous acrophobia, soaring sensation, but dammit, only a few minutes into the movie the sensation that occurred, recurred, resonated until the very end, was only a modest sinking feeling.
Robert Zemeckis’ astute, painstaking deployment of the widescreen frame is one of the most consistent technical accomplishments by a contemporary American filmmaker, but the story here is overripe with a forlorn eagerness to please. His filmography includes the shapely perfection of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, the heart tugs of “Cast Away” and the gung-ho self-destruction of Denzel Washington’s pilot in “Flight.” Each of these movies is dynamic at heart, alternating elements of kineticism and stillness.
Adapted from Petit’s “To Reach The Clouds” by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, “The Walk” is a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade-scaled inflation of simple story. (Browne assisted Zemeckis on his motion-capture animations “Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol.”) In 1974, Philippe Petit breaks many laws, aspires to a once-in-a-lifetime feat of performance art, dares gravity and death, by walking for an hour along a high wire strung in the “void” 1,368 feet above the streets of lower Manhattan between the two unfinished towers of the World Trade Center.
There are sweetly seedy undercurrents in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” narrated tumultuously by the ginger Frenchman himself to the plangent lilt of a catalog of Michael Nyman music, and suggestive of a caper movie about a heist mob or terrorist cell learning the ways of a building and its denizens and its weaknesses before fortuitously and effectively taking it down. Most of the grown-up elements in that film are brassed away in “The Walk”: Petit here is a bantering bantam of deep arrogance and deeper insecurity who takes his friends, girlfriend and accomplices for granted as he dreams only of his “coup” on the wire. Where Marsh went for other notes, Zemeckis simplifies to flat comedy, including second-rate sight gags, scenes designed for tension that have little, and much irksome caricature. The overly detailed costume design filled with bright colors and patterns beyond Petit’s black garb, tickles the eye, but other details prompt only sighs: New Yawk-accented cops; “hey, man” paranoid stoners; oh look, the French girl’s skirt is riding up again, check out those thighs; and Ben Kingsley as a Sir Yoda with a delicious but distracting marble-garbling accent that competes with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s game yet ropy one.
Oh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Joseph Gordon-Levitt remains Joseph Gordon-Levitt, never a Frenchman, not even Pepé Le Pew with an even more peculiar accent, and certainly not properly evoking or surpassing the ass-over-teakettle verbal vigor of Philippe Petit himself. Joseph Gordon Levitt would be just as convincing playing Edward Everett Horton: not at all. Gordon-Levitt will have to content himself with being only a charming, gorgeous man.
“The Walk” hopes to twinkle from its first seconds, when a straight line is drawn on black, and in 3D extends horizontally from left to right before the main title materializes atop it. Narration begins and Méliès magic is overlaid onto what is basically a Lumière story. (Which the scale of the superior “Man on Wire” well demonstrates.) Observing the unfinished Towers from a white backdrop, Petit explains and explains. Soon we see he is standing in the torch of the Statue of Liberty (perhaps a greater French gift to America), and he explains and explains, while from within a top hat, he extracts a globe, which he spins, like a zoetrope that contains the planet, and flickers Paris into being, in combined black-and-white and color and also containing a mime.
There are bits of poetry and flickering wit that grace Petit’s passage into an ebullient boor and bore: a 1970s France that could have come from a side street of Jeunet’s “Amélie”; a boy’s bare feet walking the rope effortlessly elided by those of the grown man; the girlfriend’s introduction singing a mixed French-English version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” as he plies his buskery on a Paris street (“For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind…”).
But as the shards of story laggardly nest into place, small details gall, ones that could be overlooked if the scenes advanced at a dramatic tempo. There are fake newspapers galore, with unlikely typefaces and logos that don’t resemble any of the time. Storybook stylization? No, student sketchpad inattentiveness. A yellow cab seems to have taken up residence in the middle of every block and on every corner. And there’s a tense moment toward the end that displays a big, boldly misspelled sign. Despite much of the movie being confected on soundstages in Montréal, “unauthorised” is a dumb word to see atop the World Trade Center, especially in a production that trades in digital effacement.
Yet the final shot gleams, despite the odds, the camera sidles tenderly, reflections glow golden the length of the now-complete towers, and escapes the potential of both vainglory and exquisite bad taste.
“The Walk” opens in IMAX 3D on Wednesday, September 30 and in movie theaters on Friday, October 9.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.