“The Walk” does what movies often aspire to but seldom achieve: it makes you feel like you’ve gone someplace you can’t really go and done something you can’t really do. Exciting, even exhilarating, Robert Zemeckis’ 3D recreation of French daredevil Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center is an uplifting tribute to the human spirit.
The climactic high wire act is also an Oscar-worthy technical tour de force. Obviously, the Twin Towers had to be recreated via a combination of practical sets and CGI and green screen shots, but the results are stunning. Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Petit, convincingly appears to be on a steel cable between the 110 story tall Twin Towers, and the audience is given vantage points (including from above) no one else saw when Petit actually carried out his “coup,” as he puts it.
“The Walk” was shot in 2D and post-converted to 3D. There have been good and bad results with 3D post-conversions over the years, with enough bad ones that regular moviegoers are justifiably skeptical about the process. It works here, although Zemeckis exploits 3D only sporadically leading up to the climactic tightrope sequence. He does however obligingly provide an occasional amuse l’oeil here and there, unexpectedly throwing objects at the camera. Once he’s put his star on the wire, the 3D provides a vertigo-inducing sense of altitude which absolutely will get the attention of any viewers with acrophobia. This is amplified in the IMAX presentation.
The question is whether there’s enough story to engage the audience for the 123 minute long movie, most of which takes place on the ground. Happily, the answer is “Mais oui.” Zemeckis, who has a unique genius for sensing cinematic potential in the most unlikely of properties has fashioned a highly entertaining, old-fashioned caper movie for the first two acts of “The Walk,” as Petit and his growing band of unlikely accomplices prepare for their stunt. Even the jaunty jazz score encourages the audience to think in terms of “The Hot Rock,” “The Thomas Crown Affair.” The movie is narrated by an on-screen Petit, perched atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a device which should be intrusive but oddly isn’t.
Zemeckis adroitly recreates the dirtier, grittier New York City of the seventies (a substantial amount of the movie was actually shot in Montreal) as he draws us in, deftly making the audience feel like accomplices themselves. The movie encourages a substantial amount of respect for the engineering that went into Petit’s coup – Petit was the movie’s technical advisor. Apparently you can’t just string a clothesline and have this sort of thing come off well.
Gordon-Levitt, playing Petit with a Charles Boyer accent, might seem an odd choice to play the flamboyant Frenchman, but looking at photographs and footage of Petit from the seventies demonstrates that he isn’t physically wrong for the part. And he has a solid handle on Petit’s mercurial personality. Petit, who started out as a Paris street performer, is seen first as a mischievous scamp, a merry prankster, whose whimsical ambition to perform a high wire act between the Twin Towers becomes an obsession.
Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon (“The Hundred Foot Journey”) manages to carve a distinctive character out of what could have been a typical, thankless girlfriend role. James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz (“This Is Where I Leave You”), Benedict Samuel (“Underground: The Julian Assange Story”) and perennial TV face Steve Valentine comprise the pleasantly colorful band of accomplices. Sir Ben Kingsley, as Petit’s mentor, demonstrates frightening scene-stealing powers.
Nonetheless, in “The Walk” getting there is only half the fun. And when Petit finally sets his feet on that cable, we go with him and the results are breathtaking. Equal parts “Rocky” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Walk” affirms the human spirit while cheerfully promoting some good-natured anarchy. The title of Petit’s book, upon which the movie is based, is “To Reach the Clouds.” After seeing “The Walk,” the viewers will feel they went up there with him.