Film Review: The Walk

Despite a bit too much whimsy in the first half, this account of Philippe Petit’s remarkable wire-walk between New York’s Twin Towers is a dazzling visual experience.
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’Tis the season for immersive, vertiginous movies in 3D, preferably on an IMAX or other large-format screen. First came Everest, the saga of a doomed expedition to the peak of the Earth’s highest mountain. That’s being quickly followed by The Walk, a meticulous recreation of a stunt that astonished the world in August 1974, as French aerialist Philippe Petit brazenly (and illegally) strung a wire between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center and took a 45-minute walk 1,400 feet in the air.

Petit’s legendary feat was already chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, but there are only photos of the event, no actual film footage. So leave it to director Robert Zemeckis, whose career has long combined robust storytelling with cutting-edge visual effects, to recreate not only the walk but the proudly standing Twin Towers and the expanse of ’70s New York below them. The end result is a breathtaking virtual experience that will have your legs wobbling as you leave the theatre.

But first, Zemeckis and Christopher Browne’s screenplay, based on Petit’s memoir, backtracks to where it all began and the young Philippe’s obsession with stringing his wire in public places and making a spectacle of himself. He’s taken under the wing of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the colorful Czech head of the Omankovsky circus troupe, who becomes his chief mentor. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes his first major splash walking between the towers of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral in 1971, but even before that success he had become fixated on the proposed NYC Twin Towers, which he first learned about from a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. All these biographical details are recounted to the camera by Philippe himself, whom we first see perched atop the Statue of Liberty; it’s a cloying touch which isn’t helped by Gordon-Levitt’s sometimes overly thick French accent.

The first half of the film risks whimsy overload, but once preparations for the big walk begin, all is forgiven. Like Man on Fire, The Walk is mostly a caper film—Petit’s project must be done surreptitiously, which is no, uh, cakewalk when you’re dealing with the tallest buildings in the world. Petit posed as a journalist to gain access and to research the structure, but there was still the challenge of propelling his cable across the space between the towers and the fact that some of his co-conspirators were a bit flaky. Zemeckis deftly maintains suspense during the prep sequences, and then comes the coup de cinema: the walk itself. It is simply beyond belief how seemingly fearless Petit was, inching back and forth on that narrow wire so unnervingly high above the ground, turning around and heading in the other direction as astonished New York cops reached out to grab him, and even being at ease enough to lie down on the wire. And Zemeckis’ remarkable visual-effects team, led by Kevin Baillie, makes you feel like you are there with him. Adding to the impact are the very persuasive and detailed cityscapes of 1974 Manhattan, and the poignant feelings the film generates for a lost New York landmark and the tragedy it represents.

Gordon-Levitt, despite his wavering accent, is a very appealing and graceful presence, and it’s clear he put tremendous effort into mastering the art of wire-walking. And French-Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey) is charming as Annie, Philippe’s girlfriend and his very first accomplice.

The Walk is the next best thing to being on top of the world with Philippe Petit—and, really, wouldn’t you rather experience it from the safety and comfort of a theatre seat?

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