As the final moments of “The Walk” came to a close, I realized that my hands were sweating profusely as they clenched the armrests of my seat. The last hour of Robert Zemeckis’ latest film is very effective, but there’s also lots of good fun to be had in the lead-up to the tension.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a marvelous—and marvelously believable—Frenchman named Philippe Petit who staged what he called “an artistic coup” by daring to wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The idea came to him in a dentist’s office when he saw a magazine ad about the towers which told him that they were the tallest in the world.
I saw the film in IMAX 3D, which is definitely the atmosphere it was made for. In the first 90 minutes, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography and the 3D effects give a beautiful storybook quality to Petit’s early successes as a street performer. The film’s visual sensibility is so inviting that you instantly see the attraction between Philippe and Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow street performer.
Annie and Phillipe first meet in a bravado sequence with the two competing for the crowd’s attention with their different acts: Annie’s guitar playing against Phillippe’s high-wire juggling. Philippe tells her he resisted the urge to upstage her by walking between the tall trees behind her—a moment so utterly charming that it wins you over without even seeing the twin towers that dominate the rest of the film.
Petit immediately begins work assembling a team and figuring out the logistics of the World Trade Center walk. Annie expresses occasional fear about the project, but her admiration of Philippe’s artistic passion supersedes her worries and she helps him find new recruits, who he affectionately calls “accomplices.”
Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the veteran circus acrobat who helped train Petit in wire-walking, puts up the money for the stunt after a tense argument about the artistic merits of the idea. By sheer passion and force of personality, Philippe convinces him of the worth of the enterprise.
Once in New York, Philippe and his team study all they can about the towers. Things seem to be going well, but an injury to his foot and his near-insane passion for the project prove significant setbacks.
Still, with obstacles left and right, Philippe succeeds in his crazy quest. Petit’s walk is widely credited with endearing New Yorkers to the towers. Of course, it is also the most daring physical feat of balance ever attempted.
If any of this sounds far-fetched, it is, but it actually happened. You may remember the equally charming and captivating documentary “Man on Wire” from several years ago that showcased real footage of the event. However, “The Walk” creates a remarkable feeling of being there in the moment and witnessing this amazing spectacle.
The titular walk is just plain captivating on every level. Zemeckis (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” “Flight”) has always had a keen acumen for interesting and hair-raising visuals, and here he proves it yet again. The IMAX 3D obviously helps him in this effort, reinforcing the scale of the undertaking and the potential for disaster at every turn.
Gordon-Levitt’s off-screen narration and nuanced physicality during the walk invites us in emotionally, instead of making the event a purely visual one. Working from Petit’s book on the event, Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter Christopher Browne craftily go into the wire-walker’s psyche, raising the pressure even further with a soul-searching moment of dreamy cloud cover.
This is when I could feel my hands sweating. However, “The Walk” wisely doesn’t just leave you with that triumphantly tense sequence. It also offers a poignant, tasteful coda about Petit’s impact on the perception of the towers and what a horrible shame it was to lose them.
“The Walk” = 5/5
“The Walk” is now playing in theaters nationwide.
(Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)