This was never going to be an easy story to tell, for many reasons.
- It is about an event that, while watched by the world, was most impactful to those in NYC that day, over 40 years ago.
- It is about a Frenchman, Philippe Petit, who wasn’t exactly the nicest guy to start with.
- It is covering territory that an Oscar winning documentary, Man on Wire, already covered in 2008.
- It is about an obscure desire that most people will not connect to directly.
- It features the Twin Towers, whose demise has changed how we think about them … forever.
That’s a lot of reasons to avoid making the film in the first place. But co-writer/director Zemeckis saw, at the heart of this story, a general human desire to achieve and live. He employed a lot of subtle tricks to avoid the listed concerns, to varying degrees of success.
By focusing on the human need to achieve and conquer, the story becomes broader than the single event, covering both points 1 and 4. The event itself becomes a slap in the face to fate and authority… which, to be fair, isn’t far from Petit’s sensibility. The story also has a very American sensibility in its telling, and focuses from the start on the Towers themselves, trying to keep the center of gravity in the US rather than in France or Petit himself.
To avoid the resistance to French culture here in the US, he puts Petit on the torch of the Statue of Liberty to narrate his story. This choice serves both a way to provide a beautiful view of the NYC skyline as well as an unspoken reminder that the green lady came from France and is an important part of us.
Despite covering the same ground and time period as Man on Wire, Zemeckis turns this into more of a family movie about dreams, which also tends to unbalance the facts and narrative. Man on Wire doesn’t ignore the dreams part, but it also is a bit more honest about the characters involved, and grittier in its telling.
To the final point, both Man on Wire and The Walk turn their stories into love letters to the towers and to NYC. Man on Wire is more successful, in my opinion, as The Walk is mostly lip service to this, until the very end. And using this particular story to deliver that letter isn’t as effective, though still an emotional punch, with Petit telling the tale. He becomes a constant filter for the awe and joy of their existence for his purpose rather than allowing the audience to respond to them directly.
Casting was also an interesting challenge for this film. In the two lead roles we have an American, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), and an Englishman, Ben Kingsely (Self/less). While Kingsley’s character is of indeterminate origin, Gordon-Levitt’s Petit had to be very, very French. While Gordon-Levitt made a good run at it, changing his posture, his rhythms, and his look, it took a good half the film for it not to feel like play-acting for me. His accent was just a tad forced, his gestures just a little too conscious. Kingsley was middling as well, with a slippery accent and a unfocused motives (which are partially the script). I admire both of these actors a great deal, so part of it is my own expectations, but I don’t think these are going to go down as some of their top performances.
The rest of the supporting cast is predominantly French (or French -Canadian). Charlotte Le Bon and Clément Sibony, both from The Hundred Foot Journey, are the main support, with a very nice turn from César Domboy as well. The exceptions to this were the remainder of the team, played by Steve Valentine and James Badge Dale (The Lone Ranger). All of the support team did a nice job filling out the story and providing Gordon-Levitt a backdrop to push against.
There is an emotional completeness to this tale, particularly the final 20 minutes, that will be very satisfying to most. Having lived through the real event and having seen Man on Wire, my response is necessarily skewed. But the movie feels Hollywood, and it isn’t a Hollywood story. I can still recommend the film (especially in 3D, despite some of the weak implementation of that effect) but would encourage all and sundry to then see Man on Wire for more of the truth. It doesn’t lessen the achievement, but this is a case where knowing more about the people actually helps the event rise above its conception rather than sink beneath its weight.