The Walk (2015)

Sony and Tri-Star Pictures present a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne; based on the book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit. Produced by Jack Rapke, Tom Rothman, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis. Music by Alan Silvestri. Photographed by Darius Wolski. Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Production designed by Naomi Shohan. Costumes designed by Suttirat Anne Larlab. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine.

In 1974, a French magician and acrobat named Philippe Petit wanted to make a name for himself. He was as skilled a tightrope walker as the world had ever seen, and he became fueled by a singular, unshakable obsession: to suspend his wire between the two newly-constructed World Trade Towers in New York and walk across. This is, of course, crazy. But what’s crazier is that he actually did it. He assembled of team of specialists and engineered a plan of brazen ingenuity to break into the towers with his equipment, assemble his rigging undetected, and then perform his stunt at dawn to the gasping crowd below. For many New Yorkers, Petit’s stunt was a defining moment in the life of the newly-minted towers, a touch of magic bestowed upon what had been dismissed as flat, “giant file cabinets.” In one single morning, Petit had helped usher them into iconic status.

Robert Zemeckis’ new film The Walk tells the story of Petit’s incredible stunt, using the canvas of IMAX 3D to render each moment in teeth-chattering detail. But Zemeckis’ aim is not to tease us with nausea, it’s to summon our wonder. It’s a joyous and whimsical picture, and touched with some of the same mad genius that ran through Petit, and also Zemeckis’ best films (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump). Zemeckis has always been a bit of a tightrope walker himself, making projects that are huge gambles supported by intricate, unmistakable precision. With Petit, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he has found his uncanny avatar: a man who, with his exaggerated accent, devotion to magic and superior craft, walks the fine line between ridiculous and sincere. It only makes sense that Petit narrates the movie, sometimes talking right to his camera. This is his and Zemeckis’ joint magic trick.

The movie takes its time getting to the top of the towers. We start in France, where Petit is a young street busker with visions of fame. He learns the art of the tightrope at a traveling circus run by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who is wise in many things, especially in knowing what an audience will let an artist get away with and what it won’t. In Paris, Philippe meets a lovely street singer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who becomes both the chief ally for his schemes and the primary apologist for his worrisome madness. Upon flying to New York, the emboldened lovers enlist a team to help them in their quest, which includes a loyal photographer (Ben Schwartz), a slick French immigrant (James Badge Dale) who has achieved maximum New York assimilation, a banker (Steve Valentine) who actually works in one of the towers, and a brilliant engineer (Caesar Domboy) who is–wait for it–petrified of heights.

The film’s second act is a heist picture of distinguished caliber. We see the colorful team devise a plan with split second timing and then must execute it with a degree of improvisation that surprises even themselves. We experience tension, excitement, intrigue, doubt and a tangible sense of yearning. The blueprint of these sequences, it must be said, comes from James Marsh’s exceptional 2008 documentary about the same events, Man on Wire, which included so many reenactments it practically served as a trial run for this film.

But while a documentary can tell you how it happened, only the power of drama can best communicate how it felt, and that’s where The Walk excels, especially in its closing half hour, as Zemeckis succeeds in putting us on that wire with Petit–letting us feel every gust of wind, every twist of cable, and–crucially–every stirring in Petit’s soul as he performs for a growing sea of New Yorkers (and a group of gobsmacked cops on each tower roof, with whom he plays with as he retraces his steps more than once). It’s all nail-biting, but it’s also a lovely and magical payoff, made all the more poignant in closing moments that pay heartfelt tribute to the World Trade Towers that Petit, who soon after became a New Yorker, loved so much. The Walk is one of the year’s best entertainments.

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