The Walk dramatizes the life of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who in 1974 snuck into the then-under construction World Trade Center, hung a wire between the two main towers, and walked across. It studies his early life in France as a street performer, documenting how he found the “accomplices” for the feat. And then the second half of the movie plays out like a strange heist film: one where the goal isn’t to get anything out, but just to bring things in. Even when everything seems to go wrong, Petit pushes on, unwilling to let go of his impossible dream.
The necessity of The Walk is always in question. The documentary Man on Wire already exists, and gets far closer to the truth of events than this movie ever can. It simplifies things, particularly in its portrayal of the Petit character. In the documentary, Petit is much less likable, a more complex figure whose obsessions reveal a deep sense of megalomania. In this film, presumably for the sake of commercial interests, he is a much tamer figure: a wild dreamer prone to outbursts but ultimately benign.
But the purpose of the film reveals itself once Petit is actually up on the wire. The Walk provides a pretty compelling argument for the necessity of IMAX 3D. The documentary is able to tell a much fuller story, but it isn’t able to put the audience up on the wire with Petit. And on the largest screens, in 3D, it’s a pretty terrific experience. The film does a great job of conveying what it feels like to be up that high. This is a rare case where 3D is actually called for, the added depth provided by the technology a crucial piece of this experience.
The strength of the wire walking scenes doesn’t completely make up for the shortcomings of the rest of the movie. It’s a little all over the place, unable to decide exactly on what it is it wants to focus on until it finally gets to the titular walk. And it’s still a little too prone to stating its themes out loud, with the constant narration of its main character underlining what we ought to be thinking. But there is some charm to how the film separates itself from reality, displaying a heightened version of the world that seems to spring entirely from the skewed perspective of its decidedly iconoclastic main character.
The pace is really set by the performance of its lead star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The actor, as likable as ever, gives the lead character his sprightly charm. The script doesn’t really plumb the depths of this character, but Gordon-Levitt’s performance reveals layers that go beyond what’s written. His performance fits perfectly within Zemeckis’ vision for the film, which isn’t overly concerned with verisimilitude. It instead treats the past as a dream, with the twin towers standing as a symbol for what we’ve somehow lost in present times.
The Walk is a pretty lively film, but that energy only becomes meaningful in the back end, where all of it becomes directed towards a singular moment that transports the audience to an impossible place. Maybe it takes too long to get there. Maybe the movie isn’t able to bring its various ideas together into a singular theme. But for the moment, while we are up there with Petit, the film becomes vital. It is an experience worth having, even given the looseness of the rest of the picture. At the very least, it makes 3D feel like it’s worth it, for once.