An opening caution to the vertigo-prone: you may want to see The Walk in 2-D.
That’s because if you see it in 3-D—and most everyone should—you’ll be swaying for the last quarter of the movie, as French wire-walker Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hollywood's resident man-sprite) walks slowly back and forth on a wire strung between the two newly-constructed towers of the World Trade Center. It’s 1974, and Petit, a capricious, whimsical guy with an almost annoying enthusiasm for life in general and wire-walking in particular, is fulfilling his dream. That’s no spoiler; the story is in how he gets there.
The Walk is based on the true story of Petit’s stunt, and so if this all sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was told pretty recently in the much-loved 2008 documentary Man on Wire, a Netflix staple. The Walk sticks to the contours of Man on Wire, which certainly raises the question of why this one was made.
In a press conference following the screening I attended, director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) said he wanted to make this film because no footage exists of Petit actually walking the wire. In recreating it, I suppose—and in letting us hover over Petit as he traverses the wire and narrates his experience—we’re meant to get a more intimate view of what happened.
The way this final act is shot is so viscerally thrilling (my heart was in my throat, even though I knew the story, and it took me a half hour to feel calm after it was over) that it’s worth excusing the film’s deficiencies. But it has them. To wit: it’s narrated by Petit, perched in the Statue of Liberty’s torch, and it’s a little hard to take Gordon-Levitt seriously with his French accent (though it’s not a bad one). Similarly, characters give a few too many Important Speeches About How Important This Dream Is, but it’s all in the rather maudlin vein of “follow your heart” and “follow your dream” and “do this beautiful thing” that could be transplanted into basically any movie.
It’s also a little disappointing that the film, probably in its attempt to stay rated PG, fails to explore what the walk meant to a still grimy New York City, in the age of arson and bankruptcy and rampant drug use, before the boom of the 1980s. (This is explored beautifully—and once again, with the aid of Petit’s story—in Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin.)
The film seems more than a little insecure, unwilling to let you feel its awesomeness—it shouldn’t have been—and resorting to telling you, over and over, that this is a very inspirational story and you should be inspired by it and by beauty and dreams and the sky and did we mention beauty? The camerawork and the skillful use of 3-D to enhance the story is showing it; no need to tell as well. Lay off it, buddy. Let us feel it.
But despite the syrup, which is getting laid on awfully thick, the movie does manage to point to what’s truly interesting about Petit’s feat. New Yorkers who observed his “coup,” as he called it, were forced during a busy downtown Manhattan rush hour to stand still and look up at the sky. The tiny man up on the wire was almost too small to see, but his walk drew attention to the towers, which were newly-constructed (in fact, they weren’t finished) and not all that well loved.
Petit continually refers to his coup as “art,” and I admit that I rolled my eyes at first. But then I realized that he was right. Art is the thing that makes us pay attention. It shows us a world we thought we knew, but shows it to us in a new way. If all we see in art is what we expect to see, then it’s not art at all, or not good art. Petit’s wire walk made busy New Yorkers pay attention and, soon, come to see those towers as a lovely symbol of their city.
And so if The Walk can’t quite summon the nerve to do the same—if it feels the need to yell Look at me! when we’re already looking—it does manage, near its end, to make us look anew at both a piece of our shared history (one that’s now gone) and at the incredible things a movie can do. So for that, we can be grateful.
But beware if an aspiring daredevil lives in your house. “Inspirational,” indeed.
The film is rated PG, appropriately. There are a few of very low-level cuss words (a few instances of one that refers to a person’s rear end and one “crap”). In one short scene, Petit has to strip naked for purely technical (non-sexual) reasons. We see his rear end a little, but the rest is obscured. It is implied that two unmarried people are living together, but we only see them kiss. There are some very general references to being high from a couple of characters who obviously are stoners, but drugs don’t make an appearance and it will probably fly over the head of most kids. And, obviously, the 3-D high wire act may frighten some very small children. But if the above elements are acceptable, then it’s probably appropriate for older grade school children and up; the eye-popping elements may even please the braver among fidgety young children.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.