The Walk’ attempts to balance spectacle with truth

The Walk

Three stars

The Walk Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Benedict Samuel. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated PG. Now playing.

James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire turned the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 into a suspenseful heist movie, aided enormously by the presence of Petit himself and his exuberant recounting of the events. The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ narrative film about Petit’s daring stunt, attempts to blow the story up into a grand Hollywood spectacle, with mixed results.

Zemeckis struggles with bringing personal drama into the story, and the first half of the movie suffers from some contrived biopic moments. But when Zemeckis finally gets to the walk itself, his excessive technical wizardry (he never met a scene to which he couldn’t add multiple layers of special effects) works wonders, putting the audience right alongside Petit for his heart-stopping, mind-blowing stunt.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a solid performance as Petit, although he can’t quite match the impish charm of the real thing, and the supporting characters are little more than literal support for Petit’s exploits (which is perhaps to be expected for a movie based on Petit’s own book). Zemeckis adds constant CGI flourishes, as if to distract from the mundane script he co-wrote with Christopher Browne, and there’s more duty than wonder to the backstory of Petit’s relationship with his mentor (Ben Kingsley). But then Petit steps out on the wire, and Zemeckis captures the kind of visceral awe that Marsh’s documentary could only describe.

To learn about Petit and his story, watch Man on Wire; to be dazzled by its wonder (at least briefly), watch The Walk.

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