James Marsh’s remarkable ‘Man on Wire’ was such a purely enjoyable and crowd-pleasing documentary that it was likely inevitable that someone would make a super-powered Hollywood version. After all, the tale of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center is a strange, funny, moving and inspiring story, and the one thing Marsh couldn’t do in his project was stage that stunning sight in IMAX 3D.
It only makes sense that Hollywood would make its own version and that IMAX-obsessed visual wizard Robert Zemeckis would helm the project. There’s no denying the beauty and craft of what he delivered, nor is there any way to ignore the excess of fromage.
The film kicks off with Joseph Gordon’ Levitt’s French-accented version of Phillippe Petit describing the power of his dream and the freedom of walking life on a high wire in an overblown (and not particularly well CGI augmented) prologue that instantly establishes all of the problems with the film. All the contradictions and complexities that made Petit such a fascinatingly flawed man are stripped away in favor of movie star stunt-cast pixie heroism. The thing about Petit’s story that led to such a wonderful documentary is that it’s naturally poetic, larger-than-life, and whimsical in a manner that doesn’t need to be oversold. That’s just inherent in the piece. Watching the documentary ‘Man on Wire’ felt magical because you couldn’t believe the story was true, even though it actually happened. ‘The Walk’ is so frustrating because none of it feels true, even though it actually happened.
From the first frame, Zemeckis seems to be engaging in a personal mission to out-whimsy the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (‘Amélie’). Early scenes in Paris with Petit stealing croissants off coffee tables in black-and-white would feel too on-the-nose for 1930s Disney cartoons, and things only balloon from there. Every character on screen feels like an exaggerated caricature in a manner that will remind you that Zemeckis did indeed write the notorious flop ‘1941’. (Even Ben Kingsley, who somehow delivered a grounded performance in ‘Prince of Persia’, leaps off the deep end here.) Levitt speaks exclusively in hyperbole and faux-poetry in a manner that makes his Pepé Le Pew accent even harder to ignore (whenever he isn’t distractingly insisting that everyone around him speak English for the benefit of no one). Even the smallest character beats have been hyped up to IMAX 3D scale and feel off. The tone of ‘The Walk’ can only be described as nauseatingly whimsical.
However, when the movie finally reaches its destination, Zemeckis’ directorial excess finally serves a purpose. The act of setting up a high wire between the twin towers was a hilarious heist film begging to be made, and Zemeckis has all the tools to deliver that with just the right mixture of goofball laughs and genuine suspense. Then there’s the wire walk itself. It’s impossible to deny the intoxicating effect of Zemeckis’ flowing virtual cameras plunging viewers into the experience through IMAX 3D. On a technical level, it’s an extraordinary achievement. On a visceral level, it can leave viewers gobsmacked. The sense of vertigo is palpable and the beauty of Petit’s unmatched human experience is deeply moving. (Even Levitt’s often irritating performance seems to snap into focus.) Remove a few unnecessary lines of voiceover, and the climatic 45 minutes of ‘The Walk’ (specifically viewed in IMAX 3D) is one of the most impressive and ingeniously conceived cinematic experiences of the year.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to watch that sequence in isolation. The only way to experience it is to suffer through some of the most irritatingly manipulative and screechingly sentimental work of Robert Zemeckis’ career. (And the man made ‘Forrest Gump’, so that’s really saying something.)
The movie is a mixed blessing. Yes, the climax is beautiful and astounding and stunning and all of those poster-quote platitudes. It can just be a tough sit getting there. Ultimately, if you want to experience a perfect cinematic encapsulation of this story, warts and all, then ‘Man on Wire’ is the way to go. If you want to see Philippe Petit’s World Trade Center wire-walk delivered with all the grandiose cinematic power that IMAX 3D can muster, then see ‘The Walk’. It’s a shame there’s no way to make a mash-up of the two movies and release that in IMAX.