Robert Zemeckis, with the help of some massively talented special effects artists, puts you on a wire over 1,300 feet above Manhattan in The Walk, an uneven but ultimately thrilling account of Philippe Petit’s amazing 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers.
If you’ve seen Man on Wire, the documentary featuring Petit himself, you’ve seen most of what happens in The Walk. The big difference here would be a stunning reenactment of Petit’s stunt rather than still pictures. The people who crafted this film have done a terrific job recreating the towers, and Zemeckis really does put you on the wire with Petit.
Having grown up in Long Island, New York, I spent some time in, around and on top of those towers. While I can’t account for what it was like to walk a wire from one building to another—because I’m not the insane type who would attempt such a thing—I can tell you what it was like to be standing atop one of them, or gazing up at them with wobbly legs from the ground. Zemeckis absolutely nails it. Every inch of the buildings looks authentic.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sporting a French accent that sounds a lot like Sacha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, plays a very jovial Petit. The film picks up when he was a young man miming in the streets of Paris. After a visit to the dentist’s office, Petit spies a picture of the Twin Towers and immediately starts planning his “coup.”
The buildup to the big walk is a little goofy and a tad tedious. Zemeckis uses a framing device that has Petit narrating from the torch on the Statue of Liberty, and it feels trite. Opting for the early ’70s, rusty, dirty Liberty torch is a nice authentic touch. The city cleaned up the statue about 10 years later, so if you were to visit it today, that torch is seeing better days.
After some uninteresting stuff involving Petit and a tightrope walking circus mentor (Ben Kingsley in a useless “Obi Wan” role), Petit goes to Manhattan and assembles his team. As soon as he gets next to those buildings, the movie soars to a new level.
With the help of some fake moustaches, architect and construction worker disguises, Petit and friends managed to study the building multiple times before actually shooting a wire between the towers with a bow and arrow and shocking the living heck out of city dwellers on their way to work.
The walk itself has to be one of the year’s finest examples of special effects doing their job. I watched the film in 3-D IMAX, and the last act of the movie is something to be experienced. In addition to perfectly replicating the buildings, there’s a sense of being on that wire holding a big pole and being one misstep away from a very long drop.
Petit didn’t just do one cross and call it a day. He was on the wire for over a half hour, during which time he laid down on the wire, saluted the people down below and saluted skyward like the absolute maniac that he was. Sure, Evel Knievel did some messed-up stuff on his motorcycle around the same time, but I have to cite “the walk” as the most amazing daredevil feat of the 20th century.
Levitt is fine in the central role, even if his accent is a bit distracting at times. Apparently, he trained with Petit himself and got fairly astute at wire walking and juggling. He also taught himself how to speak French. That’s a lot of work for a movie not many are likely to see. The film had an initial IMAX-only week, then expanded to more theaters. It’s not doing well. Perhaps that’s because most people who would be interested feel that they have already seen the film after taking in Man on Wire.
Even if you have seen the documentary, see The Walk. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s like the most dizzying of amusement park rides. The final 40 minutes are some of the most fun you will have at the movies this year. You just have to wade through the pre-Manhattan, Paris-dwelling boring minutes first.