In “The Walk,” Robert Zemeckis dares audiences to look down, zooming fast as gravity past 110 stories from the top of the World Trade Center to the expectant faces in the crowd below. A quarter of a mile above, daredevil high-wire artist Philippe Petit (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) soft-shoes between New York City’s two tallest buildings in a breathtaking stunt the lunatic Frenchman believes could be “the most audacious work of art that has ever been done.” For a man whose name literally means “little,” Petit sure talks a big game. Luckily, Zemeckis shares his gift for hyperbole, and together, they re-create the wild dream as only cinema can, giving audiences a thrilling 3D, all-angles view of an experience that, until now, only one man on Earth could claim to have lived. Ultimately, its commercial fate will depend on word of mouth, as a New York Film Festival kickoff and nine-day Imax opening stretch inspire audiences to talk the “The Walk.”
What Zemeckis delivers here is an entirely different brand of spectacle from what audiences have come to expect from recent studio tentpoles, sharing a true story so incredible it literally must be seen to be believed, as opposed to imaginary feats full of impossible CG creatures. Speaking of tentpoles, “The Walk” takes its cues from the circus, where 8-year-old Philippe first laid eyes on a tightrope act, and from which his flamboyant performance style eventually sprung, with the coaching of possibly Czech circus honcho Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, sporting a wild Europudding accent worthy of “The Room’s” Tommy Wiseau).
Gordon-Levitt was always going to be a strange choice to play Philippe Petit, a hyper-kinetic and highly gesticulative showman with impish blue eyes, wild orange hair and a thick French accent — none of them qualities that audiences associate with the brooding star. Even in “(500) Days of Summer,” he displays a touch of the melancholy, though he does earn points for commitment, going to the trouble of delivering a significant portion of his dialogue in French. Still, resemblance matters, since the 1974 Trade Center coup has made Petit an international celebrity of sorts, his story known by children (a significant percentage of the PG-rated film’s intended audience) and retold in James Marsh’s terrific 2008 documentary “Man on Wire.”
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Whatever one thinks of Gordon-Levitt’s weird wig and contacts, the physical aspects of his performance do impress as he adopts the lithe, catlike moves of a professional funambulist — and the attitude of a flip French artiste. Say what you will about the accent, but Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne have captured Petit’s voice — the real, honest-to-God way he expresses himself — and by channeling that, the actor successfully wins us over from the outset, hanging out in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. From this high perch, he narrates “The Walk,” banishing the word “death” from his vocabulary, while enjoying a clear view of the Twin Towers that dwarfed lower Manhattan until that fateful day in 2001.
Of course, no film can touch on these landmarks without conjuring memories of their tragic collapse, though “The Walk” reminds us that while New Yorkers still bond over the question, “Where were you on 9/11?,” a quarter century earlier, before the South Tower was even finished, witnesses to Petit’s walk were forever transformed by what they saw. (That very notion inspired Colum McCann to write his brilliant tapestry novel “Let the Great World Spin,” which revolves around Petit’s high-wire act and, in the author’s words, “the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground.”)
Few filmmakers have accomplished more seemingly impossible feats onscreen than Zemeckis, and here, the “Forrest Gump” helmer again proves his magician’s ability to blend character and technology in such a way that virtuoso style springs organically from the material itself. There are moments in “The Walk” where the camera does impossible things, whether hovering above Philippe’s head as he balances some 1,300 feet off the ground or peering through an advertisement torn from a French magazine, upon which Philippe has doodled a thin line between the not-yet-built Trade Center towers.
Philippe sees the world differently, and that alone makes him an infectious protagonist. He carries a small length of red cord in his pocket, holding it up to distant landmarks to imagine a wire suspended there. After an early failure that ended with him belly-flopping off his cable into a shallow lake, Philippe passed a wire between the twin belfries of Notre-Dame Cathedral and got himself arrested for walking it. His performances may be victimless crimes, but they are crimes nonetheless, and the fact that Philippe and his crew must plan the World Trade Center coup in secret lends it much of its suspense. After all, they’re defying not just gravity, but the laws of polite society as well.
Much of what made “Man on Wire” so thrilling was the fact that Marsh had approached Petit’s story like a caper film. Though Zemeckis follows a more linear trajectory — spending the better part of the pokey first hour in Paris, where Philippe falls for street musician Annie (saucer-eyed Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon) and enlists her photographer friend Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) — “The Walk” shares the white-knuckle sense that the World Trade Center performance must be planned and executed with the precision of a bank heist, a sensibility reflected in Alan Silvestri’s light-string score, which alternates between insistent and inspiring as the suspense level requires.
We see Philippe, forever the clown, don an elaborate series of disguises as he and his friends case the joint — a job made considerably easier after stepping on a nail forces him to use crutches, even if the foot injury is sure to complicate the stunt itself. Bringing three accomplices over from France, Philippe recruits a handful of Americans, including wild-mustachioed Steve Valentine as their inside man and James Badge Dale as a slick electronics salesman. Philippe may not be short on charisma, but Dale gets to do the fancy talking — and steals nearly every scene he’s in — whenever they’re trying to hide their French accents.
While Gallic buddy Jean-Louis takes the North Tower, Zemeckis follows Philippe and his acrophobic friend Jeff (Cesar Domboy) infiltrate the South one. As the building is not yet open to the public, its work-site hazards are every bit as unsafe as an under-construction Death Star. Zemeckis can get a little carried away at moments like these, indulging a “Vertigo”-like fantasy in which Jeff goes spinning off into the open elevator shaft where Philippe and Jeff duck to hide from a passing security guard — though it’s helpful to remember that he’s playing to his widest potential audience since “The Polar Express,” and he’s trying to psyche the kiddies up for the main attraction, once the guard leaves and the men can finally step out onto the observation deck.
Oddly, the rooftop scenes yield some of the movie’s least cinematic footage, a bit too obviously shot on ground-level soundstages (though real-life details keep things lively, as in an amusing bit where Philippe inexplicably strips off all his clothes to retrieve the arrow shot between the towers). Maybe Zemeckis is just saving his mojo for the moment when the wire is finally suspended between the buildings and Philippe is ready to take his first step out into the void. At any rate, he shows little interest in the pic’s few subplots and hasty resolution from this point forward.
How long can you hold your breath? For the next 17 minutes, Philippe is free as a bird — as is d.p. Dariusz Wolski’s often-virtual camera, occasionally relying on performance-capture and other visual-effects tricks that he and Zemeckis innovated during their ugly but ultimately useful all-CG phase. As Philippe moves back and forth between the towers, pausing to sit, look down and taunt the police officers gathering on either roof, Zemeckis puts stereoscopic 3D to maximum advantage: Gazing from above, the wire rests just below screen level, we hover above, and Ground Zero sits a full quarter-mile in the distance.
A shame, then, that the Imax version Sony screened at the New York Film Festival (the same one they will be releasing on Sept. 30) takes so little advantage of the high-res format. The digitally projected picture appears fuzzy and out-of-focus on such a big screen, making it tough to judge (or fully appreciate) whatever care went into re-creating period details too far off to make out. When crowds gaze up at Philippe’s performance, their faces are little more than blurred orbs. We yearn to see their expressions, to share in their wonder. “The Walk” is an event to be witnessed, and too much of the detail seems lost on such an enormous format. Still, in addition to being a staggering spectacle, it is also an eminently relatable human story, and that should read loud and clear on any screen.