The story of Philippe Petit — the deranged Frenchman who rounded up a gang of like-minded maniacs, strung a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and spent 45 minutes bouncing around on it on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974 — has been told before, on film (2008’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire) and on the page (by Petit, in his memoir To Reach the Clouds). But The Walk is the first time you’re able to have an inkling of what it felt like to teeter on a steel cable a quarter-mile in the air above the streets of Manhattan, thousands of people gawking up at you, the only thing keeping you from plunging to your death your own balance.
And how does it feel? Some of the attendees at the hoity-toity New York Film Festival this weekend, where The Walk premiered, responded by throwing up on their expensive tuxedos (this has been confirmed as fact, not a publicist’s hoax). Sitting inside an IMAX 3D theater (where The Walk will screen exclusively until Oct. 8 before opening wider), I did not hurl, but I did plant my feet on the ground repeatedly, just to make sure it was there, and my palms did perspire (a peculiar sensation, hand-sweat). For those who already suffer from a touch of vertigo, The Walk will probably be too much to endure. And if you’re not afraid of heights, prepare to be.
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Director Robert Zemeckis would take these reactions as a compliment. The filmmaker has had a peculiar career, alternating between carefully constructed gems of genre narratives (Back to the Future, Used Cars, Contact) and pictures that existed primarily to showcase the wonders of special-effects technology (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Polar Express, Beowulf). Zemeckis won his Oscar for directing Forrest Gump, which also involved some bits of visual trickery but was otherwise an uncharacteristically hammy and patronizing bauble for an artist who has favored edgier, darker fare (yes, I know Forrest Gump is beloved; it’s still terrible).
In The Walk, Zemeckis again succumbs to the allure of shiny machines — here is a movie comprised of as much CGI as any of the Star Wars prequels — except the artifice is designed to pass for reality, and the illusion is absolute. What matters about The Walk is not how well Joseph Gordon-Levitt captures Petit’s breathless enthusiasm and French accent (he nails them) or that all the other characters in the film are thin enough to be blown away by a mild breeze (as a Paris street musician, Charlotte Le Bon’s role might have well be named Love Interest).
The incessant narration by Petit, who addresses the viewer directly while standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, at times feels like babbling (the movie gives you the feeling that Petit was a handful). But what matters the most in The Walk is that you believe what you see, even though your brain tells you the World Trade Center is no longer there and that Gordon-Levitt isn’t really standing 110 stories above the ground without a net, and that no, you can’t really fall headlong into that vertiginous IMAX screen, although you will probably still clutch your armrests to be safe. The Walk has been made with the same genial spirit a judge used when he sentenced Petit to perform a free show for children in Central Park for his crime. This is a love letter to lunacy (and an unspoken tribute to the iconic towers) that lets you feel what it’s like to tread where only gods dare.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy.
Director: Robert Zemeckis.
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne. Based on the book ‘To Reach the Clouds’ by Philippe Petit.
A Tri-Star Pictures release. Running time: 124 minutes. Extreme heights. Playing at IMAX 3D theaters only. Opens everywhere Oct. 9.