Philippe Petit preaches freedom, independence, even civil disobedience – all in the name of artistic expression. He's the type of guy who not just talks the talk, but walks the walk, literally.
The Frenchman's greatest walk, of course, came in 1974 when he strung a cable between the towers of the brand-new World Trade Center, making high-wire history and astounding New Yorkers. His illegal feat was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire and is now the subject, in narrative-fiction form, of The Walk.
Though Man on Wire is good, the new Robert Zemeckis film is slightly better. And to understand why, one can turn to Woody Allen. A character in that director's masterpiece, Zelig, says that when a man changes appearances, you have to see it. You can't just read or hear about it. Although that film deals with absurdist fiction, the same principle holds true for a real-life marvel: a man walking a wire across a 140-foot span, 1,350 feet in the air. And since the actual walk was never captured in moving images, it is perfect fodder for cinematic spectacle.
Zemeckis may be no Allen, but he's no slouch either. The vastly underrated director has helmed such masterpieces as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump. He understands the visual power of cinema and realizes that, if he uses all the special-effects tricks in his repertoire, he can bring "the walk" back to life.
Although the film was shot in 2-D and placed in 3-D, the conversion is extraordinary and contains even a few gimmicky but fun "made you jump" moments. The lighting and color palette (especially in the early scenes of France) are stunning, as is the well-researched art direction. It's just a shame that almost everything else had to be so flat.
Instead of shooting a drama, Zemeckis opted for his usual concoction of Spielbergian fantasy mixed with comedy-caper. That adds energy and whimsy, even intermittent magic that's suitable for the entire family, but the film is disappointingly short on realistic drama and a true sense of danger. Told almost entirely by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in both voiceover and stagey addresses to the camera, the story sometimes feels contrived, and the accents are often muddled and distracting. Gordon-Levitt is acceptable, as is Ben Kingsley as Petit's mentor, but many of Petit's friends aren't fully fleshed out. Most disappointing is the only female, Petit's girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon), who is an astonishingly beautiful, empty shell.
But perhaps Zemeckis was fine with the supporting cast's one-dimensionality, as this film really belongs to just three characters: Petit and the two towers. As his friends remark, Petit was the one who first gave the towers their humanity and made New Yorkers see them as more than monoliths of mortar and steel. He gave them an aesthetic soul. And with this loving tribute to not just a great piece of performance art, but the buildings that made that art possible, Zemeckis has given us a magical, if flawed, tribute to the fallen symbols of America.
Dir. Robert Zemeckis; writ. Christopher Browne, Robert Zemeckis; feat. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon
Opens Friday, Oct 9, 4 stars
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