Movie Review: “The Walk”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Clément Sibony, César Domboy
Robert Zemeckis

Philippe Petit’s death-defying walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974 was previously spotlighted in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Man on Wire.” But for as compelling as that film was, it lacked a key element: footage of Petit’s performance. Recognizing an opportunity to recreate that incredible moment (one that only a small crowd of people had the privilege to experience) on the big screen, director Robert Zemeckis gives Petit’s famous high-wire act the Hollywood treatment with the generically titled “The Walk,” and in IMAX 3D, no less. Though a majority of the movie doesn’t benefit from the premium format, it’s worth the upgrade for the big finale, which utilizes the added sense of depth to showcase the danger and awe of what Time magazine called the “artistic crime of the century.”

The story begins six years earlier in 1968, when Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was just a young artist in Paris performing for audiences on the street. While waiting in a dentist’s office one day with a toothache, Philippe sees an article about the proposed construction of the Twin Towers and immediately becomes obsessed with walking between them on a high wire. Several years later, Philippe meets a street musician named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and falls in love, eventually enlisting her help, along with fellow friends Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and Jean-Francois (César Domboy), to fulfill his dream. There are a number of logistical issues standing in the way of Philippe’s success – including how they’re going to get a 200-foot steel cable across the gap between the buildings – but with construction on the towers almost complete, the group heads to New York City to put their plan into motion. No amount of surveillance and rehearsal could have prepared Philippe and his team for what they were about to attempt, and yet despite numerous close calls and an injured foot, Philippe emerged at the top of the South Tower on the morning of August 7th, with no harness and 1,368 feet in the air, and proceeded to put on a show for the next 45 minutes, crossing the gap eight times (in addition to some other tricks) before surrendering to the police.

This is the kind of unbelievable true story that you couldn’t make up if you tried, and it’s ultimately what makes “The Walk” such an enjoyable, gripping experience. Though Zemeckis and Christopher Browne’s script doesn’t dig very deep into Petit’s personal history (as Marsh’s 2008 documentary revealed, he was a bit of a prick), that’s not what the movie is about. The film is called “The Walk” for a reason – Petit’s spectacular aerial stunt is the focal point, not the man himself, and certainly not any drama from his private life. Of course, that’s easier said than done, as Petit is such a bombastic character that Zemeckis is forced to lean on him more than he probably intended.

Case in point: the movie’s use of narration, which breaks the fourth wall by having Petit recount his story to the audience from atop the Statue of Liberty. It’s an extremely silly device that pulls you out of the film every time it cuts back to him, although Petit is so self-absorbed and flamboyant (constantly jostling to be the center of attention) that it makes perfect sense that even his fictional self would be this theatrical. Gordon-Levitt’s accent takes some getting used to, but he was a smart choice to play the French daredevil, because you need someone with his boyish charm to match Petit’s boundless energy without coming across too strong. And while the rest of the cast is used pretty sparingly, Le Bon, Ben Kingsley and James Badge Dale all deliver strong work in supporting roles.

Though Zemeckis spends a little too long setting up the story, once Petit arrives in New York, “The Walk” springs to life as it transforms into a classic heist film. The planning and execution makes for some thrilling moments, but it’s the titular climax that’s the obvious highlight, and Zemeckis squeezes every drop of tension and delight out of the high-wire act. The real-life Petit didn’t have the safety net of a soundstage and green screen to complete his trick, but Zemeckis uses these tools to great effect, redefining the phrase “end on a high note” with a sequence that will leave you breathless and wanting more. Although “The Walk” succeeds mainly as a slice of popcorn entertainment rather than a potential Oscar contender, it’s a really well-made movie that works both as a celebration of Petit’s once-in-a-lifetime performance and a tribute to the World Trade Center.