The hard truth about Robert Zemeckis’ justly acclaimed “The Walk” is that until the movie actually gets down to the business of setting the French wire walker Philippe Petit in spectacular motion across a wire linking the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the movie isn’t so hot.
It’s hardly bad, mind you, but for all the conspicuous charm of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Kingsley as his great wire-walking mentor, the movie is clearly marking time.
There’s just so much braggadocious biographical palaver you’ll want to hear about a French daredevil’s insistence on being considered an “artist” and not just an aggrandized circus act.
I’ll gladly cede that Gordon-Levitt was mightily charismatic making that distinction. In a wonderful conceit, he’s speaking right into the camera on top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty as director Zemeckis shows us behind him a panorama of New York Harbor in 1974 (including the World Trade Center).
But it’s all a lot of character construction and narrative throat-clearing until the actual story begins. And that’s about the step-by-step preparation of what Petit tellingly called “the coup” from the time he first planned it long before in France. And following that is the mind-boggling walk itself, a great piece of cinema no matter how you slice it.
So in effect the actual tale doesn’t begin until halfway into the film, when all of Petit’s team’s evasions of police and building employees become suspenseful and the act is sensational.
“Coup” indeed it was when Petit crossed a wire back and forth between the two towers – a triumph over fear, wind, height and human ordinariness. It was an overthrow of the laws of gravity and all that they do to us inside.
We have long lived in an era when CGI and movie special effects routinely provide us with onscreen miracles. Zemeckis, like his friend Steven Spielberg, has provided us with some of the more stunning examples, whether we’re talking, in Zemeckis’ case, about “Forrest Gump” showing up at the 1963 March on Washington or that airplane flying upside down in “Flight.”
The studio was understandably very careful about making sure that critics saw “The Walk” in the optimal way – in 3-D at an IMAX theater – with the result that those audience members mildly touched by passing acrophobia felt in all manner of unusual body parts those scenes of walking on a high wire 1,350 feet in the air over the streets of lower Manhattan.
The word “intensity” doesn’t quite cover the feeling.
But as undeniably powerful as the IMAX effect is during those scenes, I have every confidence that ordinary 3-D and indeed 2-D for that matter will carry the viewer aloft in a remarkable way.
The skyscraper walk in “The Walk” is unforgettable. That, too, is part of the truth, hard and otherwise, about “The Walk.”
It’s based on Petit’s memoir of his Manhattan mega-stunt – the same event which inspired James Marsh’s award-winning documentary “Man on a Wire.” It’s that origin as well as Marsh’s doc, which I think convinced the screenwriters that they needed to adhere to Petit’s self-definition as an “artist” rather than a reckless self-destroyer. Whether he’s actually “mad” or just a consummate professional amused to be thought so is up to us individually.
That’s all well and good when your hero is being played by Gordon-Levitt, one of the more winning young actors in movies. Those playing his comrades – his “coup”/stunt requires a fair amount of assistance from others – include James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine as an American admirer with a WTC office and Charlotte LeBon, who begins as Petit’s fellow street performer in Paris until his wire-walking begins to send his reputation to the heights. Then she becomes his lady love and his chief emotional support – the human guy wire for all his living wire walking.
It goes without saying that in the light of the horrors of 9/11, this movie has an entirely different context from the one it might have had if it had been made in the 1980s or the ’90s.
What we’re watching is a French performer compelled to travel across an ocean to New York City and do his most difficult stunt in a symbol of that city which has always been happy to call itself the world’s greatest.
Zemeckis knows that.
Petit stayed in America after his walk in 1974. His human aspirations had outlasted the site of their greatest ambition.
The fate of those towers has more meaning now for more people than most of us are able to toss off easily. Zemeckis knew that among many other things, his film would be a tribute to that urban symbol.
It’s a worthy one.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte LeBon, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 123 minutes
Rating: PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking.
The Lowdown: The acclaimed tale of French wire-walker Philippe Petit’s amazing 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.