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The Walk

Year: 2015
Production Co: ImageMovers
Studio: Sony
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Producer: Tom Rothman, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis/Christopher Browne
Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley

If you've seen the documentary Man On Wire you know the story. A young French high wire acrobat, Phillipe Petit, travelled to the United States when they built the World Trade Centre Towers and – with a crew of confidantes – spent all night of August 6 and 7, 1974, sneaking up to the roof and rigging a wire between the towers so he could walk across in front of the transfixed city of New York.

The story up until the walk takes place looks like a fanciful, romantic fairytale, making it seems like screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne have sketched Petit's early life with only the slightest of nods to reality.

He's a young street performer determined to make a mark on the world by stringing his wire somewhere breathtaking, is the same plucky-hero-triumphs-all story Hollywood's been spoon feeding us for generations.

He works casually for the ringmaster of a local circus (Ben Kingsley) in his native Paris, so you know he's going to good-naturedly pester the man to train him to be the best. He sees a beautiful girl (Charlotte Le Bon) busking in a square, so you just know he's going to pester her until she goes out with him.

For at least forty minutes, the sun-dappled set-up is a series of box-ticking plotting anyone who's seen a foreign love story movie in the last 50 years could write on the back of a serviette.

When Petit steps out onto the wire, Zemeckis, his team of digital backroom artists and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski finally take flight. In 3D, IMAX, etc, etc, your stomach will plunge as the camera wheels and floats around Petit as he makes his walk (taking about half an hour as he turns at each end and goes back eight times). At times he kneels, even lays down on the wire while we look down at the ground a stomach-churning distance below, and Zemeckis reminds you what an effective director of thrills he is.

But, like Flight, technical and effects brilliance doesn't make up for a story that's frankly a bit insipid for the first hour. What's also surprising is what a sentimentalist Zemeckis is with the material. Lighting everything like a 1940s studio musical and framing his actors lovingly used to be something we expected from his mentor Steven Spielberg, but here the storybook aesthetic only adds to how overly simplistic the plot is.

Then there's the 'issue' of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His accent was almost certainly met with howls of derision when it played in Petit's native France, but to most English-speaking audiences he'll just sound like a slightly cartoony Hollywood Frenchman – certainly enough to make you expect to see him with a beret on his head and a baguette in a brown paper bag, riding his bicycle – but not enough to disconnect you from the movie.

He narrates the whole thing not just in voiceover, but standing on top of the Statue of Liberty's torch speaking straight into the camera at the audience. It's not that a movie like The Walk demands exposition dialogue expertly woven into the story – and especially when the rest of the story itself is so clunky – but the fourth wall break is just one more abstraction that makes it all feel like being read a kids' book.

A young man sneaking into an iconic skyscraper on American soil in the middle of the night carrying a bag full of heavy equipment with a group of co-conspirators is also also very much a story of its time. The public loved the stunt so much Petit was released from custody with all charges dropped and a lifetime pass to the Observation Decks. Imagine if someone tried that today and looked vaguely Middle Eastern...

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