The story of Philippe Petit is pretty incredible, so much so that Hollywood has come calling more than once. The story of the French daredevil (some would say crazy) high wire walker was first told in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. That film brilliantly documented Petit’s dangerous (and extremely illegal) wire walk across the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s. Now, Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) has crafted an immensely entertaining dramatic telling of the same story. He also continues to show his mastery of technology and the 3-D format in particular.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Petit, the French acrobat that fell in love with wire walking at a young age. He comes under the tutelage of circus master Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who reluctantly teaches him how to rig lines so he won’t break his neck. Petit is an inexplicably happy, almost unflappable optimist, but it isn’t until he sees an article about the construction of the tallest towers in the world that he finds his purpose in life. We the encouragement of his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), he begins to brush up on his English and steel himself for his greatest challenge.
Of course, breaking into the World Trade Center before it even opens in order to perform a death-defying stunt is more than a little illegal. But that’s not the kind of things that gets in the way of a dreamer like Philippe. He must assemble a crew for the job by bringing together a ragtag group of dreamers including a couple of American stoners, an official photographer and, hilariously, a fellow Frenchman with an extreme case of vertigo.
The first part of the film, which delves into Petit’s upbringing and initial motivation for his walk, is a bit sleepy. It’s charming enough, but it suffers from pacing issues, and the constant narration from Philippe doesn’t help. We hear an awful lot of Gordon-Levitt’s dubious French accent throughout the film, and rarely a scene goes by without his colorful commentary on the situation. The narration is interesting at first but begins to grate as the film goes on.
This issue is confounded in the film’s second half, which is nonetheless much more interesting. Zemeckis plays it like a straight heist film, even more so that Man on Wire, with lots of smooth talking, disguises and close calls with guards. Alan Silvestri’s score recalls some of the classic in the genre in all the best ways. And yet, we’re frequently taken out of the moment when we cut to Philippe as he dramatically stands atop the Statue of Liberty telling us how he feels in each scene. I don’t mind such narration as a cinematic convention on principle, but less would have definitely been more here.
Zemeckis wisely understands we’re here for the climax, the walk itself, and it does not disappoint. It is one of the most exhilarating set piece moments in movie history. As great as Man on Wire is, we never really got to feel like we were on the wire with Petit. Through breathtaking cinematography and a masterful use of 3-D technology, the film manages to make us feel like we’re experiencing every moment. I can’t applaud the use of 3-D enough here; seeing it in IMAX is not optional. The result is relentlessly intense and visceral. I found myself clutching my head in tension. Of course, we know Petit makes it off the wire, or he wouldn’t be telling us his story, but the realism and intensity of the way the walk is portrayed here makes this a non-issue. Such a ridiculous, bold, completely foolish endeavor has never before been attempted, and never will be again.
This point is brought home by the fact that the Twin Towers no longer exist. The memory of what those towers meant, and what they now mean, to New Yorkers and to America, gives the film and extra layer of bittersweet poignancy. There’s even a scene where a character explains that, before Petit, locals were not fans of the towers and thought them an eyesore. After the Walk, however, New Yorkers felt a newfound sense of pride in their city, one where so many dreams are made.
The Walk is decidedly old-fashioned cinema. Like Petit itself, its bold and brilliant, self-obsessed and a bit cheesy, but ultimately inspiring. If you can forgive some slack pacing and off-putting narration, it may inspire you to dream a little bigger. That healthy dose of optimism is something the movies could use more of.