In 2008, director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) presented his documentary, Man On Wire – the story of precocious fanciful Frenchman, Philippe Petit, and his incredible, illegal tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre. Marsh’s documentary covered Petit’s real life Oceans 11 style stunt in great detail and with incredible emotion. The moment in which Petit steps out on the wire and removes his grip from the roof of the tower is a true heart stopper! From this moment it was clear that this story was ripe for dramatisation; when a true-life story is this gripping, imagine how enthralling a dramatisation could be.
Enter Robert Zemeckis; director of numerous landmark films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future, Forest Gump and Contact but has failed to match the quality and innovation of those films for nigh on twenty years. His last film, Flight, was a reasonable attempt at recapturing prior successes but it was no Contact. The time is right – nay overdue – for a return to form.
The Walk isn’t quite that film. But it is a very good film. It is imbued with the same emotional fibre of Man On Wire; when Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit takes that step out on to the wire, we experience that same heart-stopping moment we felt in the documentary. This feeling is compounded by Zemeckis’ use of modern digital 3D technology – so rarely has 3D cinema been applied as effectively and appropriately.
The story that Zemeckis presents is mostly true. Admirably true. It’s truer than most ‘true stories’ we see in the cinema these days but given our familiarity with Man On Wire there’s much less scope for Zemeckis to part with actual events. He does partake in some artistic licence, however. Some of it is for dramatic effect; some of it is metaphorical; and some of it is – less admirably – to cover some of Petit’s character flaws. But it is, for the most part, on the money.
If there’s a criticism to be had of The Walk, it is that it follows almost the exact same beats as the documentary. As a result, Zemeckis’ film doesn’t feel hugely different from Man On Wire, which begs the question: why make it in this manner?
Like the documentary, The Walk presents a strict chronology of the events leading up to the big moment, narrated step-by-step by Petit (Gordon-Levitt). Narrations in dramatisations often feel like a lazy story-telling device and here it feels no different. That Gordon-Levitt narrates the film atop the Statue of Liberty also feels heavily contrived. A little more creativity in the film’s structure, however, would perhaps balance out the on screen drama and elevate the film above it’s, albeit excellent, documentary predecessor.
Gordon-Levitt does well, however, in his portrait of Petit. He doesn’t much look like him but he sounds like him and possesses Petit’s fanciful, arrogant, carefree indignance and childish wonder.
In some ways The Walk suffers from the success of it’s predecessor and Zemeckis seems to be attempting to duplicate that success to the point of not producing anything uniquely his own. But regardless he is successful in duplicating Man On Wire’s appeal and his film is equally rewarding.