A balancing act between stunning visuals and a narcissistic character

Joseph Gordon-Levitt  plays wire-walker Philippe Petit in director Robert Zemeckis' sweeping drama about Petit's high wire walk between the twin towers.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (above) plays wire-walker Philippe Petit in director Robert Zemeckis' sweeping drama about Petit's high wire walk between the twin towers.PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

It was the act of cheek that captured headlines in 1974 - on one New York morning, someone had floated about the city on the world's tallest building (at the time), stopping traffic and charming everyone with a completely pointless yet utterly entrancing expression of art.

Petit's audacity spawned books and documentaries. But it was a matter of time before Hollywood took notice.

Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis loves stories about ordinary people swept to greatness by drive and circumstance (the three Back To The Future films, 1985-1990; Forrest Gump, 1994).

But he is best when the protagonists are not the zealots as Petit (Gordon-Levitt) appears to be. Here, he is a gushing motivational speaker when narrating his story of "'ow I made my dream come true", perched atop the Statue Of Liberty.

  • REVIEW / DRAMA

  • THE WALK (PG)

    123 minutes/now showing/2.5/5 stars

    THE STORY: Frenchman Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns, one day in 1973, that New York's World Trade Center is going up. The juggler, mime artist and wire-walker is seized by the notion of walking a wire strung between the towers, and assembles a group of friends to make his dreams come true. Based on a true story.

At other times, when he is arguing his cause with other characters - the beauty of anarchy seems to be mentioned often - Petit comes across as, at best, quixotic and, at worst, dangerously narcissistic.

Zemeckis' use of images to drive the story, however, is impeccable. Every frame sells the story, especially when Petit has his feet on the cable over 100 storeys above the street.

Zemeckis never quite persuades the audience that Petit's act of artistic trespassing is worthy, or cool, or awesome, no matter the number of debates he inserts in the script, between Petit and his girlfriend Annie (French-Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon) and his mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, who lifts the mood whenever he appears).

Except for one puzzling dawn moment just before the walk of the film's title, Petit struts about, hectoring everyone to follow their dreams (there will be a drinking game one day over the number of times the word "dream" is mentioned in the film).

Petit's self-confidence is impenetrable, a trait associated with the very successful - or the psychopathic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline 'A balancing act between stunning visuals and a narcissistic character'. Print Edition | Subscribe