The Walk is split into two disparate halves – the half Robert Zemeckis passionately wanted to make, and the half he had to make in order to end up with a complete film. Without question, the last hour of this film is brilliantly realized, taking the fact-based story of Philippe Petit’s staggering 1974 walk on a wire that spanned the distance between the tops of the World Trade Center towers and turning it into a thrill ride as taut as Petit’s steel wire, with all the bright-eyed invention and stomach-in-throat suspense that represents the best of Zemeckis. Problem is, before we get there, we have to wade through about an hour of water-treading setup that uses whimsy as a crutch and seems about as impatient as we are to get to the point.
By now most everyone is familiar with Petit’s story, which was ushered back into the broader consciousness by James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. From that, we know that Petit is a fascinating and charismatic character, and even the fringe details of his story – building a team to help him map out a tangible plan, the sometimes-fractious relationships that formed among that team, yet how they all came together to carry out an ultimately perilous mission to allow Petit the opportunity to fulfill his death-defying dream – are intriguing. It’s unfortunate, then, that Zemeckis literally glosses over the inherent humanity of the characters in an overly digitized first act that provides a backstory in the form of a live-action cartoon.
To be fair, The Walk is absolutely, thankfully, not one of Zemeckis’ fully animated motion-captured exercises, but a live-action film with more seamless motion capture integration. There is no “dead eyes” effect this time, but there are occasional dips into the uncanny valley, most frequently in the film’s labored first half, which attempts to layer digital effects where they needn’t be, like in a simple two-character dialogue scene. Zemeckis’ artistic zeal is, frankly, reminiscent of Petit, obsessively focused and stubbornly perfectionistic. But in the case of The Walk, this results in a sense of artifice in a story that is fully authentic, a feeling that Zemeckis is more focused on his craft than his characters.
As the story transitions into its bread-and-butter, the painstaking mapping and eventual execution of Petit’s self-described “coup,” we sense that Zemeckis reaches a point of narrative ease, as if he is right where he wants to be. Petit (played in the film by a bright and inviting Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his motley team perform reconnaissance on the WTC towers in an attempt to solve the innumerable barriers standing in the way of his goal, from gaining entry to avoiding security to somehow finding an adequate route to transport more than 200 feet of steel cable to the top of the 1,300-foot structures. It’s a remarkable feat that is rendered as riveting cinema, as the film transitions into a high-stakes pulp adventure reminiscent of Zemeckis’ Back to the Future days. This gives way to the film’s stunning finale, the titular walk, which is a wondrous, elegant tribute to the daring of Petit and the glory of the Twin Towers. It is in these final sequences – ironically, the film’s most densely animated — that the artifice fades away and we finally immerse in the world Zemeckis envisioned all along, reverent, resonant, joyous.
So compelling is The Walk’s finale that it makes the beginning stages all the more glaring. How unfortunate that such a resoundingly awe-inspiring story could be plagued by such perplexing narrative missteps – and technical oversteps – along the way. How disappointing that a true story of such literal enormity could be held earthbound for so long by the obsessive craftsmanship of its maker. When we are standing with Petit on that narrow wire, standing among the clouds, we feel imposing, grand, mythic. It’s precisely the cinematic nirvana Zemeckis seeks throughout The Walk, and it’s too bad it takes him so long to get there.