By Kyle G. King. As the suits over in Hollywood condition themselves to taking fewer risks, more releases tend to bear the title card of being “based on true events”. But while some true stories seem unworthy to spend time and resources on (somebody murdering people by first meeting them on Craigslist is always doomed for camp), some events beg to be seen on the big screen (a young canyoneer hacking off his own arm just to survive is another example). But what is a big-time director named Robert Zemeckis to do if the particular true story he’s after has already been made into a movie, and a book, and then another movie? Answer: invest in fashionable cinematic trends and present this fictionalized account in three glorious dimensions (you might find my tone cynical, but truly, Rob, it was a great idea).
When supreme Frenchman Philippe Petit (supreme because he is an actual superman, and more so because he is supremely French) took it upon himself to illegally hang a tightrope wire and walk between the still-under-construction World Trade Center towers in 1974, even the arresting officer knew he had done something truly remarkable. So truly remarkable indeed that Petit wrote several books and essays of the dangerous feat and documentarian James Marsh even detailed the stunt in his celebrated 2008 documentary, Man On Wire. Craving more on behalf of the modest moviegoer though, Robert Zemeckis conjured a truly ingenious formula for a new account of Petit’s walk: Guy on tall tower + 3D glasses + handsome Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mild prosthetics = one fun experience. And ‘one fun experience’ proves to be the TL;DR evaluation of the Zemeckis’ newest undertaking, simply titled The Walk.
JGL might win you over despite his ridiculous French accent as the man on wire, Philip Petit, but the trickiest bit of adapting a documentary to fiction lands on Zemeckis’ keen taste in knowing what to leave perfectly as is, and what to sprinkle with Hollywood storytelling glitter. One might think the man responsible for giving Roger Rabbit life and sending DeLoreans through the 4th dimension would have an unqualified grip on the matter, but Zemeckis proves he’s still quite fit to exercise artistic license with his own balance of true vs. highly exaggerated. It’s still unclear why he has Petit get so upset about dropping his turtleneck off a building or why he just had to include Petit getting naked on the rooftop, but Zemeckis’ efforts make the small steps of reality a little bigger and more dramatic all in service to the story. But with a stunt at a towering 110 stories tall, his directorial twerks are still not quite enough to support the colossal feat.
When hanging a wire (or a script) it’s extremely important to build a proper support system. And while Petit and company come up with an innovative cavaletti cross to keep the wire from shaking at such a height, Zemeckis’ approach isn’t quite as fresh or reassuring. The script (penned by Zemeckis and collaborator Christopher Browne, with Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds also receiving a credit) spends about two-thirds of the movie recounting all the planning and logistics needed to prepare for the walk, constantly beating us over the head with, “This is a terrible idea, but I shall do it anyway!”. All of which is perfectly fine and entertaining for a unassuming documentary in Man On Wire, but for a big Hollywood feature built for epic 3D visuals and a star studded cast, it’s a bit diminutive. When we’re given a Philip to merely smile along with and little else, the climax of the actual walk might be breathtaking and even technologically fantastic, but it blows right past us with little emotional punch.
Focusing on the physical antics of pulling off “The Coup” rather than the psychological chops required to take that first step knocks The Walk down from an appropriate thriller-comedy to a mere comedy-thriller. While always charming, well paced, and beautifully realized, The Walk only proves itself worthy of a fictionalized 3D rendition in its final third act. Though, Philip Petit took an enormous risk stepping out 1300 feet above the ground, The Walk plays it safe walking far too closely alongside its documentary source material.