First hour bad, second hour good.
Early in the morning on August 7, 1974, 24-year-old Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. James Marsh's Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire does a beautiful job detailing how it came to be. But most people don't want to watch documentaries in theaters, which brings us to Robert Zemeckis' The Walk.
How nice it is not to have to worry about spoilers. The movie is called The Walk, not The Fall, so there you go. We know he did it. As trailers for the production have made clear, the lure of the film is the chance to experience the walk yourself. In IMAX! In 3D! And who better to direct than Zemeckis, the magician behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Back to the Future trilogy, Cast Away, The Polar Express, Flight and so many more.
Zemeckis knows how to dazzle. Parts of his landmark movies make you wince — the stiff action scenes in Roger Rabbit, the unconvincing makeup in Back to the Future, the horrible, dead eyes in Polar Express — but the man gets the job done.
The second half of The Walk, where Petit and his team travel from France to NYC to make his illegal dream come true, delivers on its promise. Echoing Man on Wire, the movie plays like a heist film (the score is obvious, but effective), with plenty of hold-your-breath moments. The long tightrope walk is beautifully presented. Zemeckis understands that documentary style footage isn't enough for an event movie, so he weaves in a number of impossible shots to heighten the experience. The payoff is substantial. By the time Petit finally steps back onto a rooftop, you will be exhausted.
Time to focus on the bad news. To get to the second half of the movie, you have to endure the first half. As Petit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is forced to turn up the cutesy factor to 11, employing a French accent that sounds invented but apparently reflects how the real man talks. The character narrates his own story and, man, is he annoying! Petit is a self-absorbed attention hog who is insensitive to others. Further aggravating factors: he rides a unicycle. He juggles. He's a mime, for chrissake! His mentor is a wire-walker known as Papa Rudy, played by Ben Kingsley with a suspect accent all his own. As Annie, a singer/guitarist/potential love interest, Charlotte Le Bon plays the only person in the movie's first half who isn't insufferable.
My suggestion is that you watch the first few minutes, then slide out to the lobby and read a book for about an hour before returning for The Walk's rewarding second part. If I could, I'd give the movie separate star ratings for each half: 2 stars for the first half, and 4 stars for the second. My compromise rating is 3.5 stars. I'm leaning toward the high end because I appreciate seeing the World Trade Center in its infancy, when people were still debating the aesthetics of the place. The film ends with a nod to the nightmare that would come many years later. The moment is restrained and appreciated.
Opening: Wednesday, in wide-release