Since the age of 8, when he first witnessed tightrope artists in a circus, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was destined to become a wire-walker. As a teenager, after seeing a photograph of the World Trade Center towers in New York, he sets his sights on wire-walking between the two monumental structures. From humble beginnings in Paris as a street performer (and a constant target for arrest by police, as he doesn’t believe in permits), to leaving home to pursue his interests, to picking up advice and instruction from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), one of the greatest acrobats in the field, to tackling the public display of walking between the towers of the Notre-Dame cathedral, Petit prepares himself for the daredevil waltz across the tallest buildings in the world.
To perform the artistic – and illegal – “coup of the century,” Petit recruits his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and his photographer pal Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), as well as a young math teacher called Jeff (Cesar Domboy), to journey to the United States, where they will need additional accomplices to conduct research and observation on the towers – one of which is still undergoing construction. After months of practice, spying on workers and shifts, figuring out how to elude security guards and to stay in the building after hours (aided by inside man Barry, played by Steve Valentine), arranging for ropes and wires to be passed back and forth between the skyscrapers, and calculating the necessary stabilizing lines, anchor points, and cavelletti for properly securing the steel cable, Petit is finally ready for the main event. And, on August 6th, 1974, he finally has his chance to tackle the most daring of all wire-walking stunts.
At first, the film presents a rather abrasive narration, breaking the fourth wall to have Levitt spout a distracting French accent. But, just like a few pacing problems resulting from devising a backstory and various relationships, the grand build to the climax helps viewers to forget everything beforehand. Director Robert Zemeckis also goes overboard with artistic embellishments, such as blaring music, still photography, slow-motion, and flashbacks within flashbacks. With plenty of special effects at his disposal, he never refrains from utilizing them all, though none of the gimmicks can best the awe of the recreations of the Twin Towers and the vertiginous aerial shots of the central stunt itself.
“The Walk” does possess a certain verve, an energy that succeeds in transforming this single, newsworthy occurrence into a cinematic entity, quite suitable for a feature-length dramatization of true events. Gobs of melodramatic characters are added to give the story extra heart – including a father figure, a best friend, and a love interest – while plenty of comedy works its way into the script. And, in the last half-hour, the suspense is exhausting, boasting a “Mission: Impossible”-styled series of hair-raising near-misses and looming interferences that threaten Petit’s endeavor. Interestingly, the possibility of death or injury is never as menacing as the potential of getting caught by the police. Though the conclusion – conceived to wrap up personal relationships and pay tribute to the World Trade Center – loses steam, the headlining stunt is exhilaratingly triumphant, saving the picture from any earlier creative and technical troubles.