Philippe Petit’s death-defying high-wire walk between the twin towers was previously chronicled in 2008’s Man on Wire, arguably the best documentary of the past decade. That’s certainly a tough act to follow. Even with a masterful director like Robert Zemeckis behind the camera, The Walk sounded like a biopic destined to fall flat by comparison.
Much like the film’s bold protagonist, though, Zemeckis has pulled off a remarkable feat against all the odds. The Walk is not only worthy of companion to Man on Wire, but a great film in it’s own right too. It’s furthermore an exciting heist movie, a rousing family picture, and a loving salute to the spirit of Philippe Petit.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to stand out as one of our most underrated actors as Petit, an eccentric artist/street performer. This Frenchman has an extraordinary dream: to rig a wire between the World Trade Center and walk across it. Obviously, Petit is mad for even considering such an endeavor. He speaks of his dream with such passion and enthusiasm, however, that others can’t help but encourage him.
Petit learns to master the wire under the mentorship of Papa Rudy, played by Ben Kingsley in a wonderful supporting performance. As the towers near competition in 1974, he heads to New York and devises a plan to make his dream a reality. Petit pulls the coup off along with his lover Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and an assortment of other rebels that just want in.
This portion of the film plays out with the same thrills of Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job. Where those films ground themselves in fun, unrealistic escapism, however, The Walk grounds itself in an unbelievable story that’s all too true. Even if you know all the obstacles and setbacks Petit endured while infiltrating the towers, the film consistently leaves you on edge. Then as Petit steps foot onto the wire, it’s truly awe-inspiring movie magic.
This is one of the best performances from Gordon-Levitt, who encompasses all of Petit’s charm, energy, and lust for living. What’s just as astonishing, though, is Zemeckis’ depiction of the World Trade Center. The Walk does an amazing job at recreating the fallen towers in all their glory. Granted, occasionally the use of CGI and green screen effects can be blatant. Even then, though, you always feel the weight and size of these majestic buildings. We hold our breath with every step Petit takes on his wire, simultaneously fearing for his life and exhilarated by the wonders below him.
As usual, Zemeckis takes full advantage of the IMAX screen to deliver a visually stunning, larger than life experience. Dariusz Wolski makes the audience feel like they’re walking on air, additionally putting the film’s 3D to effective use. Alan Silvestri’s musical score ranges from whimsical to daring, which pretty much sums up our protagonist in a nutshell.
The Walk is a fitting tribute to Petit, as well as the towers he loved so much. It’s of course impossible to watch the film without thinking about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Through a bittersweet final image, though, we’re reminded that the towers may no longer be standing, but they’ll always act as beacons of inspiration.