To be honest, I’m a little surprised at the overwhelmingly positive reviews received by The Walk, the true-story retelling of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s daring wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers back in 1974. It’s not that the film is bad — it’s just that it had so much going against it.
For starters, Petit’s story was already told in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. Usually when there’s a brilliant documentary on a subject already, especially one mingled with well-received re-enactments, the dramatisation is inevitably compared, and usually unfavourably.
Secondly, Petit is played by American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I love the guy and think he’s a great actor, but the self-confessed Francophile is still not French. He apparently speaks fluent French and got the seal of approval from his French co-stars, but of course there will still be those who say his accent (either in French or his French-accented English) isn’t genuine enough.
Thirdly, despite it being the story of a Frenchman, the movie is still made for English-speaking audiences, meaning the majority of the movie will still have to be in English. This means they had to find ways to make the French characters speak a lot more English than they otherwise would, and to some that could come across as forced.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, The Walk received a scores of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and 78% on Metacritic, with many praising the performances and director Robert Zemeckis’s ability to create and build tension when the majority of audiences already know the outcome.
I agree that Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt both did a fantastic job of dramatising the true story. Petit is a likable protagonist, a dreamer with dreams of grandeur, and his journey is craftily developed, with energy and thrills, to make us care about him and his plight. I was worried that the film could be boring given that it is largely focused on the Twin Tower walk, but it does a good job of not making it feel like the process — of scouting the premises, finding the right people and equipment, evading authorities and ensuring safety — was merely time filler before the climax.
And yes, the climax is an impressive piece of modern-day movie wizardry, much longer than one would expect and filled with more tension than I had imagined. There is of course ample CGI in all their aerial scenes, and fortunately the special effects are realistic enough — for the most part — to not take you out of the moment.
Having said that, I personally felt the disadvantages I listed above did take away something from the overall experience. I haven’t seen Man on Wire, so I can’t compare, so my main qualm about the movie is the fact that they are forced to speak so much English. The idea is that Petit is trying to learn English for his Twin Tower walk, so he says it as often as he can, but I can’t help but think of it as a little contrived. I understand the delicate balance between appealing to English-speaking audiences and authenticity, though in this case I feel authenticity took a big hit.
The other problem is of course the sense of inevitability that comes with a true story. You know he’s going to end up walking on the wire, so everything that happens beforehand, as well done as it is, doesn’t quite have the same intensity. And I’m also terrified of heights, but the scenes of Petit walking the wire didn’t scare me as much as I thought they would. I don’t know if it’s because of some minor, almost unnoticeable flaws in the CGI or because I know the outcome — either way, it just didn’t quite get there for me.
So ultimately, The Walk wasn’t quite the captivating and eye-popping experience I had hoped it would be. Despite strong performances from a great cast that also includes French actress Charlotte Le Bon (from The Hundred-Foot Journey), Ben Kingsley and James Badge Dale and the usual impressive direction from Zemeckis, I felt the movie just had too many inherent obstacles to overcome. Perhaps I would have had a different impression had I seen the movie on the big screen and especially in IMAX, which by all accounts is spectacular stuff.
3 stars out of 5