There’s no way to tell the story of Phillippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope trek between the World Trade Center towers without the absurd, cloying, silly personality of the man himself. So director Robert Zemeckis deserves some slack for the Forrest Gumpiness of The Walk, his big carnival ride depiction of Petit’s life. Ditto Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s already been ridiculed for his French accent, even though his imitation of Petit’s exaggerated Parisian voice is spot-on. (The criticism stems solely from the fact that it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt speaking these lines; whether he really needed to be cast instead of a non-distracting French actor like Gaspard Ulliel or Louis Garrel is another conversation.)
True to its protagonist, the film opens with maximum cheese, as Petit breaks the fourth wall and narrates from a location that we realize is the torch of the Statue of Liberty. As the movie flashes back to Petit’s childhood, his apprenticeship with a circus showman (Ben Kingsley), and his romance with a cute street musician (Charlotte Le Bon), Zemeckis and cowriter Christopher Browne inflate the story with a dirigible’s worth of hot air and whimsy. As in musicals, where the act of singing is treated as commonplace, the tone is artificial. We know we’re watching a prankster and we’re encouraged to play along with the con. One sequence is shot in black and white with only a dollop of color. In an early high-wire scene, the pole slips from Petit’s hands and spears straight through the right lens of our 3-D glasses.
Though it’s clear what Zemeckis is doing—embracing Petit’s fakery in order to match the supernaturalness of his stunt—The Walk starts to crackle once Petit reaches New York City and touches the World Trade Center, which he does for the first time, endearingly, with his chin. The flights of fancy continue in the film’s middle stretch, as he recruits a businessman in the South Tower (Steve Valentine) and an electronics salesman (James Badge Dale) as collaborators in his daredevil plot, but the occasional hokum cannot cloud the stunning, incandescent craftsmanship of the movie’s third act.
The 17-minute wire-walking sequence is the most majestic simulation of a real event since the ship sinking in Titanic—a dazzling triumph of photorealistic digital effects, which exhibits Zemeckis’ mastery of both CGI and pace. Though so much of what preceded it is histrionic, the scene is marvelously unhurried, almost dreamy, taking its cues from Petit as it moves slowly and breathes calmly. Incredibly, 17 minutes is only a third of the time that Petit spent on the wire in actuality, but the sequence acquires the verisimilitude of real time. And real weight: We somehow feel—you could even say experience—the wire bowing under his feet, and detect the force of gravity tugging from 110 stories below. (Gordon-Levitt learned how to wire-walk for the role, and the scene was filmed on an actual cable.)
For its tranquility, the central event in The Walk is the antipode of Saving Private Ryan’s chaos-filled attack on Normandy Beach. Indeed, both sequences caused nausea in audience members, while also making it easier to forgive the banalities elsewhere in their respective scripts. Zemeckis, like Spielberg, has been branded a big studio sentimentalist for about two-thirds of his career. And there are moments here, like a digression where the shirtless Petit wakes in the middle of the night to doubt himself and act erratically, that provide fodder for Zemeckis’ haters. But those are easily surpassed by the film’s grace notes—the prettiest of which occurs in an elevator shaft when Petit touches the hand of his sidekick (César Domboy), who’s terrified of heights—and its attention to detail, from the poignantly rendered Manhattan skyline of 40 years ago to the rooftop sprocket wheel, ominously spinning to signal an ascending elevator.
No footage exists of Petit’s walk (there are only photographs), and with the intent of correcting that, Zemeckis bought the rights to Petit’s story a decade ago—several years, in fact, before the release of 2008’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire, James Marsh’s beautiful, lyrical, melancholic documentary on the same subject. Marsh’s film is the better piece of pure movie poetry, but comparing the two is a time waster. The thing that both movies crucially grasp is that a great part of what’s so tearfully moving about Petit’s stunt is, of course, our connection to the site where he did it. Were he a manipulative Hollywood buffoon, Zemeckis would never be able to resist sopping our heartstrings in ponds of 9/11 tears. When it came to judging The Walk, this was a litmus test higher than Petit’s wire. But in its lovely last seconds, the movie threads that very delicate needle. With an appropriately plaintive adieu—and mercifully, for once, no closing title cards—it eulogizes the Twin Towers without turning them into gravestones. A–