Robert Zemeckis’s new film, The Walk, opens with Joseph Gordon Levitt staring at the camera in a distracting wig and asking, in a French accent, “Why?” It’s a good question, and one I asked myself often after learning of the project. (More specifically, I wailed it like I was Nancy Kerrigan being struck by a pipe shaped like Zemeckis.)

Why? Why turn a cultural artifact as perfect as Man On Wire, the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary, into a scripted film that tells the exact same story? Why cast 34-year-old American Joseph Gordon Levitt as 24-year-old French man Philippe Petit? Why make this movie at all? The answer, it turns out, is because a lot of it is just magical.

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The Walk isn’t a complete biopic of Philippe Petit, but a chronicle of the planning and execution of his most impressive feat: a 45-minute high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in August of 1974. After a brief introduction—JGL’s Petit narrates the entire film while standing on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, for some reason—the film jumps to roughly six years before his walk in a distractingly soundstagey version of Paris. (They filmed the whole thing in Montreal for tax reasons, because that’s what people do now.)

Gordon-Levitt’s Petit, at least in the film’s first half, is an excruciating screen presence. I mean, just insufferable. As a street performer, he juggles flaming bowling pins and does magic tricks with his top hat and steals cafe umbrellas and flirts with unsuspecting Parisian woman—all before unicycling away from the bumbling French police who want him to stop as badly as we do. This is, by all accounts (including his own), what the real Petit was like, but the delighted bewilderment of watching his manic behavior firsthand in Man On Wire is lost when performed by an actor. His, how you say, magnetism doesn’t really translate?

Apart from Sir Ben Kingsley’s performance as Papa Rudy, the grumbling circus manager who unwillingly teaches Petit the ins and outs of high-wire walking, the film’s first act is complete fluff. I’d almost recommend going into the theater 45 minutes into the movie, but that would be rude to the people who have to stand up to let you squeeze by. No, just suffer through those opening scenes, because once Petit and his accomplices arrive in New York and begin planning their “coup,” The Walk becomes one of the most exciting things I’ve seen all year.

This is the first film since Gravity that I’d recommend seeing in 3D or not at all. Zemeckis’s camera knows how to terrify and amaze its audience, and—when positioned 1,350 feet off the ground at the top of the World Trade Center—it does plenty of both. (If you suffer from vertigo, maybe avoid it.) Without that extra dimension, I fear the thrills would be gone, and that the movie would have little reason to exist. But, boy oh boy, my palms were sweating from the time he made it to the top, to the time he was forced back down by the NYPD. I even got a little teary-eyed during JGL’s final narration, despite the fact that it was delivered atop an astoundingly fake-looking State of Liberty torch.

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“There is no why,” Petit famously said when asked by New York City reporters why he performed his walk. That may be true with death-defying works of art, but when it comes to popular entertainment, you need a raison d’être. Fortunately, The Walk has a surprisingly wonderful one—or at least half of it does.


Contact the author at bobby@jezebel.com.

Image via Sony.