If only, for the benefit of other filmmakers exploring the same material, we could un-see a great film and clear our memories of it. One such film is the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” James Marsh’s account of what happened the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, when French aerialist Philippe Petit wire-walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Eight times he crossed that wire, 1,350 feet above the streets of lower Manhattan. The act of trespassing was not legal and involved all sorts of disguises, accomplices, dodges and “spy work,” as Petit referred to it later in his book “To Reach the Clouds,” on which the new film “The Walk” was based.
Marsh’s documentary won the Oscar for best documentary, and it deserved more — a best picture nomination, at least. So. Where does that leave “The Walk,” director Robert Zemeckis’ fancy, fictionalized docudrama version of the grandest act of poetic terrorism ever committed on American soil?
I cannot say how I’d feel about “The Walk” if I’d never seen “Man on Wire,” because I did see “Man on Wire,” and I can’t un-see it. I love it. I can only say “The Walk” struck me as an honorable good try of an also-ran, though with some lovely things to offer, especially when the preamble and preparations and backstage dramas wind down and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrays Petit, takes that first step.
The script by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne positions Gordon-Levitt (sporting a heavily worn French accent) as narrator and host of his own story, speaking to us from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. In predominantly black-and-white flashbacks, Paris street performer Petit plies his slack-rope skills wherever he can elude the cops long enough to gather a crowd. Then, at the dentist one day, he sees in a magazine a picture of the soon-to-be-completed World Trade Center. An idea flowers.
In cheery, bold and bright tones, “The Walk” follows Petit as he enlists his colleagues, including his lover played by Charlotte Le Bon, on the adventure of a lifetime. While they case the towers in New York, Petit’s circus mentor, played by Ben Kingsley, wonders back home if his prize pupil will ever meet his ambitions. Petit did, of course.
The film gets better as it goes, and the last half-hour (especially in 3-D on an Imax screen) is nearly everything it should be: scary, visually momentous, meticulously realized. The runup, however, settles for too little and too much simultaneously. Zemeckis keeps throwing things (juggling pins, etc.) at the screen in the early sequences, and while the storybook colors and tones of “The Walk” are designed to appeal to all ages, often the film simply feels pushy and insecure.
It’s disappointing, particularly in the wake of “Flight,” Zemeckis’ previous and excellent picture. There, the director’s penchant for digital moviemaking tools and tricks was put to sparing and hugely effective use. In “The Walk,” the climactic stroll of the title gets so much visual competition en route, the impact is muffled. “Stop trying so hard! Do nothing!” Kingsley roars at Gordon-Levitt at one point early on, schooling him in the art of the proper bow before an audience. Zemeckis could’ve used the same advice, at least as a check on his impulse to dazzle us every second, instead of building incrementally to a breathtaking climax.
2.5 stars out of 5
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale.
Director: Robert Zemeckis.
Running time: 2:03.
Rated: PG, for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking.