8 out of 10
The Walk Cast:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had a dream of walking across a wire between the two towers of the newly-built World Trade Center, and he put together a crack team to pull off one of the most amazing stunts of the century.
If you’ve already seen James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, than you probably already know the story of Philipe Petit, the French high-wire artist who had a seemingly crazy dream to walk a wire stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. And if you’ve seen the movie, you’re likely to be cynical that even a reputable filmmaker like Robert Zemeckis could offer anything more to that story. But Petit’s wirewalk is a great story, an “only in New York” story and as a New Yorker, it’s hard not to get emotional whenever the towers are on the screen, which is probably why The Walk resonated with me almost as much as Man on Wire did.
Narrated by Gordon-Levitt’s Petit as he stands on the torch of the Statue of Liberty with the World Trade Center behind him, it takes some adjusting to his French accent as we’re introduced to Petit and learn his background as a street performer after seeing a high wire artist at the circus and starting to emulate him, and eventually paying the circus’ Papa Rudy (played by Ben Kingsley) to instruct and mentor him. After seeing a picture in a magazine, Petit becomes obsessed with walking between the towers of the World Trade Center, but this isn’t a particularly interesting part of the film which may be why Marsh omitted a lot of it from his doc. This section does establish a nice romance between Petit and his intermittent love interest Annie, played by Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey), as well as having some nice moments between Levitt and Kingsley.
It starts getting better once Petit arrives in New York and the movie becomes more of a heist film, which is partially what made the doc so entertaining. Marsh did such a good job recreating that aspect of Petit and his crew getting up to the top of the towers in order to lay the wire between them, but Zemeckis takes it even further, using CG and 3D technology to recreate the two towers and their surroundings.
Maybe Gordon-Levitt’s acting in the movie isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but he does bring enough of the enthusiastic energy and charm Petit displayed in the doc to his performance as he talks us excitedly through his “coup.” He also does so much to sell the reality of the actual wire walk. The rest of the cast isn’t quite as memorable beyond the aforementioned moments with Le Bon and Kingsley. The French actors are generally far better in their roles than the Americans, although the latter offer more humor to the crew Petit puts together as they try to manage their way around the obstacles that hinder their efforts.
But the real thrill comes when Petit first steps out onto the wire stretched between the buildings and Zemeckis uses all the technology at his command to create the most vivid recreation of what that may have been like. You can almost feel the wind blowing against you as you follow Petit across the wire, from one tower to the next and back again, and this is where the film more than makes up for its slow start, maybe because it’s still such an amazing achievement over forty years later.
And of course, ever since the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11, there’s a great degree of sentimentality about what it represented for nearly four decades. Although he isn’t a New Yorker, Zemeckis realizes that and uses that quite effectively to make Petit’s achievement feel even more significant, since no one will ever do it again.
The best assett Zemeckis has at his disposal beyond his visual FX supervisor and 3D stereographer is composer Alan Silvestri, delivering another stirring score that does a lot to make more out of even the lesser scenes. When it comes to the actual wire walk, Silvestri gives it even more tension. Even knowing that it was successful, you’re as nervous as everyone else that he might fall.
The Bottom Line:
The Walk could very well have been a disaster especially after the less-than-spectacular opening, but by the end, Robert Zemeckis really nails Petit’s story, not only capturing the technicality of his famous wire walk but also capturing the emotional resonance it had for those who were there, including Petit. It’s ultimately as entertaining and moving as Man on Wire only on a far grander scale.