The tale was famously told onscreen once before in James Marsh’s Man on Wire, an Oscar winner in 2009 for Best Documentary Feature. On the early morning of August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He completed the death-defying stunt 1,350-feet above the ground, making 8 passes on the wire for 45 minutes. The story behind this unauthorized feat was a carefully planned exploit that he referred to as “le coup”.
At first glance, Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) might appear to be an odd fit for this fairly introspective little dramatic piece. But upon closer inspection, the concept doesn’t seem like such a random subject for the director. This is the saga of a dreamer, and as such, it feels like a labor of love for the wildly successful auteur who helmed Forrest Gump. The cinematic valentine comes across as both an ode to the idealistic spirit of Philippe Petit as well as a tribute to the memory of those impressive buildings that once towered above New York City.
A large part of the picture is merely setup to his celebrated act. The planning and organization of the caper is presented with all the anticipation of a heist. Robert Zemeckis frames the movie with charismatic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the similarly charming Petit speaking right into the camera while atop of the torch in the Statue of Liberty. Petit narrates his chronicle. That’s a whimsical touch. I suppose Zemeckis makes all of the prelude as interesting as possible, but it’s not unlike someone clearing their throat before giving an oratory address.
Zemeckis surrounds Gordon-Levitt with a colorful cast of accomplices. These include a photographer portrayed by Clément Sibony and a math whiz played by César Domboy. There’s also James Badge Dale as an American who speaks French, Steve Valentine as an American admirer with a WTC office, and Charlotte LeBon as a fellow French street performer/love interest. Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel are the final two conspirators. To be honest I couldn’t tell you what purpose they serve. Oh and there’s Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a circus performer who inspires Petit in his native France.
Like the recent Everest prior to this, The Walk debuted exclusively in 448 IMAX 3D theaters a week before its wide release. What could have been a gimmick becomes a fundamental component of the moviegoing phenomenon. This may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that utilized 3D and IMAX more perfectly than this one. The spectacle is nothing less than revelatory. I’m not saying the first half is expendable, but compared to the spectacular climax, it pales in comparison to the realism of the tightrope performance. You actually suffer the dizzying vertigo first-hand. The experience truly illustrates the danger of Petit’s achievement. This will scare the heck out of you. The technology elevates the sensation into something unforgettable.