Even if it didn’t feature the best 3-D of any film since “Avatar,” Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” would be a winner for its heady blend of gritty reality and lighthearted whimsy, not to mention yet another terrific performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The actor stars as Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who in 1974 stunned the world by slipping into the still-unfinished World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the two towers and giving the island of Manhattan the second most memorable event to ever occur at that location.
Petit’s accomplishment was already chronicled in 2008’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.” But most Americans won’t bother with documentaries, and the story behind the daring walk is so rich, engrossing and suspenseful that it easily adapts to a fictional film.
Still, in most regards “The Walk” admirably adheres to the historical facts.
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Director Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) and screenwriter Christopher Browne (adapting Petit’s memoir “To Reach the Clouds”) grab our attention immediately by introducing Petit, not just as our narrator, but a narrator who delivers his lines from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Filling the panoramic background is the Manhattan skyline as it looked in ’74. It’s a clever, fantastic touch.
Addressing us directly, Petit is like an elf with a big ego, a small man with major charm. He tells us that he never thinks about death, that for him a dangerous stunt is all about living.
The film then flashes back to his boyhood fascination with circus tightrope walkers, his training under Czech tightrope master “Papa” Rudy Omankowski (Ben Kingsley), his early career as a street performer (where he meets his girlfriend Annie, played by the big-eyed Charlotte Le Bon) and his dream — inspired by a magazine article — of pulling off the greatest aerial walk of all time in the ozone over New York City.
Petit relocates to the Big Apple to study the monstrous towers up close, to learn the schedules kept by the construction crews and to take photos and measurements so he can build a scale model and come to grips with the immense distances and physical forces that will come into play 110 stories up.
He recruits a team of French and American scofflaws (including a bored lawyer with offices in one of the towers) willing to abet him in his daring plan to execute “the most glorious high wire act in history.”
Gordon-Levitt makes Petit more inspired visionary than ego-driven showoff. Throughout the laborious preparations we’re rooting for Petit to do the seemingly impossible.
Though there’s plenty of tension here (despite everyone knowing how it all ends), Zemeckis establishes an overall mood of playfulness. That’s especially apparent in his use of 3-D. Most 3-D films today seem almost reluctant to exploit the medium, but Zemeckis is in your face.
There are moments here when audiences will actually duck to avoid being hit by flying clubs in Petit’s street juggling act, or a falling object viewed from below. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (whose excellent “The Martian” opens Friday) sets up his shots to emphasize depth.
This all comes to a dizzying head in the walk itself, which takes up the last 30 minutes of the film. This reviewer found himself grabbing the armrests to steady himself as Petit calmly steps out onto the inch-wide cable with the city of New York spread out far below.
He’s so far up that clouds float under the wire. Clearly it was done with special effects (A. the towers no longer exist, and B. no actor is going to risk his life for a movie), but the results are absolutely convincing.
It’s so intense that persons who suffer from vertigo should steer clear of “The Walk.” This is no joke — the segment is both exhilarating and terrifying. You really feel that you’re up there on the wire with Petit.
“The Walk” leaves unsaid the fate of the twin towers. But the movie serves as a sort of epitaph for the buildings and a time when they inspired amazing skill, bravery and youthful exuberance.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking
Opens: Wednesday at Barrywoods, Independence and Studio 28 3-D IMAX theaters; expands elsewhere on Oct. 9
LEARNING FROM THE MASTER
To learn the ropes (and cables), Joseph Gordon-Levitt spent an intensive eight days with Philippe Petit, who lives in upstate New York and still takes a daily walk on the wire he used at the World Trade Center. Petit taught him juggling and how to engage his core and arm muscles to stay tight while walking, and Gordon-Levitt soaked up the French accent.
“It became easy for me,” the actor told the Los Angeles Times. “I could walk forward and backward on a wire that was 2 feet off the ground. No problem. But when the wire was moved up to 12 feet, no matter how much I told myself this is all fine, my body just seized up. As soon as you start thinking that you’re really high up, you start shaking. And then, you’re sunk.”
In the film Gordon-Levitt did some of the simpler wire walking himself. For the more complicated moves, there was a stunt double, or the actor walked a plank painted green, which the digital crew transformed into a wire.
| Sharon Hoffmann
SHOULD YOU SEE IT IN 3-D?
Yes. Yes. YES!!!
The 3-D in “The Walk” is so much fun, so diverting and thrilling and mind-boggling, that it becomes an essential part of the viewing experience. Let’s put it this way: If you never again see a 3-D movie, make this the last one.