Even if it didn’t feature the best 3-D of any film since “Avatar,” Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” would be a winner for its heady blend of gritty reality and light-hearted whimsey, not to mention yet another terrific performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The actor stars as Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who, in 1974, stunned the world by slipping into the still-unfinished World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the two towers and giving the island of Manhattan the second most memorable event to ever occur at that location.
Petit’s accomplishment was already chronicled in 2008’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.” But most Americans won’t bother with documentaries and the story behind the daring walk is so rich, engrossing and suspenseful that it easily adapts to a fictional film. Still, in most regards “The Walk” admirably adheres to the historical facts.
Director Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) and screenwriter Christopher Browne (adapting Petit’s memoir “To Reach the Clouds”) grab our attention immediately by introducing Petit, not just as our narrator, but a narrator who delivers his lines from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Filling the panoramic background is the Manhattan skyline as it looked in ’74. It’s a clever fantastic touch. Addressing us directly, Petit is like an elf with a big ego, a small man with major charm. He tells us that he never thinks about death, that for him a dangerous stunt is all about living.
The film then flashes back to his boyhood fascination with circus tightrope walkers, his training under the Czech tightrope master “Papa” Rudy Omankowski (Ben Kingsley), his early career as a street performer (where he meets his girlfriend Annie, played by the big-eyed Charlotte Le Bon) and his dream — inspired by a magazine article — of pulling off the greatest aerial walk of all time in the ozone over New York City.
Petit relocates to the Big Apple so as to study the monstrous towers up close, to learn the schedules kept by the construction crews, to take photos and measurements so that he can build a scale model and come to grips with the immense distances and physical forces that will come into play 110 stories up. He recruits a team of French and American scofflaws (including a bored lawyer with offices in one of the towers) willing to abet him in his daring plan to execute “the most glorious high wire act in history.”
Gordon-Levitt makes Petit more inspired visionary than ego-driven showoff. Throughout the laborious preparations we’re rooting for Petit to do the seemingly impossible.
Though there’s plenty of tension here (despite everyone knowing how it all ends), Zemeckis establishes an overall mood of playfulness. That’s especially apparent in his use of 3-D. Most 3-D films today seem almost reluctant to exploit the medium, but Zemeckis is in your face.
There are moments here when audiences will actually duck to avoid being hit by flying clubs in Petit’s street juggling act or a falling object viewed from below. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski sets up his shots to emphasize depth.
This all comes to a dizzying head in the walk itself, which takes up the last 30 minutes of the film. This reviewer found himself grabbing the armrests to steady himself as Petit calmly steps out onto the inch-wide cable with the city of New York spread out far below.
He’s so far up that clouds float under the wire. Clearly it was done with special effects but the results are absolutely convincing.
It’s so intense that persons who suffer from vertigo should steer clear of “The Walk.” This is no joke — the segment is both exhilarating and terrifying. You really feel that you’re up there on the wire with Petit.
“The Walk” leaves unsaid the fate of the twin towers. But the movie serves as a sort of epitaph for the buildings and a time when they inspired amazing skill, bravery and youthful exuberance.