Director Robert Zemeckis is a creator of crowd pleasers, having written and directed such family favorites as “Forrest Gump,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and the iconic “Back to the Future” franchise, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “The Walk” is Zemeckis’ latest offering, an account of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire crossing of the World Trade Center, an event known to many today through the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on a Wire.”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the manic Petit, delivering a performance that captures the real wire-walker’s frenetic intensity, despite a French accent which occasionally falters. Driven from his home by an all-consuming desire to become a wire-walker, Petit seeks the tutelage of Papa Rudi (Ben Kingsley), leader of the famed circus troupe The White Devils. Rudi, however, dismisses Petit, disgusted with his arrogance. Petit leaves in mutual anger, continuing on to Paris in order to practice his craft before a larger audience. Once let loose upon the streets of the City of Lights, Petit quickly befriends two college art students, who share in his vision to commit the “artistic coup” of the century.
Petit and his crew recruit yet more “accomplices,” most of whom are merely archetypes familiar to anyone who has seen a major studio release in the past 30 years: the brash American, the stoner, the conman. Even Kingsley’s Rudi, once reunited with a repentant Petit, is a fairly two-dimensional character. The lack of fully-formed characters – with the exception of Petit himself – is certainly a reflection upon Petit’s own self-absorption, but is the cause of many dull, rote scenes.
The script of "The Walk" – penned in part by Zemeckis – is rather workmanlike: audiences are presented with unoriginal material, delivered in an utterly professional manner. It is not until the last third of the movie, when Petit finally steps foot upon his wire strung between the twin towers, that true artistry takes place. Zemeckis, well-known for his use of computer-generated visual effects, melds live action and digital trickery so flawlessly that viewers will be utterly convinced of the titular walk’s reality.
As a populist filmmaker, Zemeckis is one of the best, adept at balancing mainstream entertainment with real innovation in his films. However, “The Walk” is not one of his best outings, despite its exhilarating effects and heartfelt ending, which pays homage to the towers themselves. But even its wonderful conclusion cannot hold up the film to heights of true greatness.