The Walk

Posted by Joel Copling on October 9, 2015

For about 100 minutes, "The Walk" approaches the build-up to Philippe Petit's titular stroll across a high-wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1973 as something of a classic caper comedy, with Petit and his crew of men and one woman preparing for the act (an "artistic coup," Petit called it) as meticulously as as if they were robbing a bank. Indeed, one of the eventual members of the crew, before he offers his services at smooth-talking the important people in their way, confuses them for bank robbers on the evidence of their desired mode of radio communication. The screenplay by Christopher Browne and director Robert Zemeckis (based on "To Reach the Clouds," Petit's autobiographical account of the event) takes great care with this playful tone.

The actual walk, then, is played at such a pitch of armrest-clenching tension that it retroactively makes the caper feel of what came before feel off somehow. As soon as Philippe, played here with a cartoonish French accent and a heap of appealing empathy (and rather awkwardly narrated) by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, steps on that wire, Alan Silvestri's jazzy score soars to more flowery heights (successfully so), Jeremiah O'Driscoll's editing slows to become cautious where it was fleet-footed and swift, and Dariusz Wolski's cinematography utilizes the otherwise extraneous 3-D in a way that makes the format essential at conveying the space from above the wire placed between the towers to the streets 110 floors below.

This is it. It's the moment to which the entire film, a flawed one that is admittedly half-hearted in its attempt to biographize Petit's life before shoving us unceremoniously into his dream act, has been building, and the effort is ultimately worthy of the build-up. Those problems, such as a childhood that is played too briefly and with too much reverence (Ben Kingsley appears as the master of a circus who would ultimately take Philippe in and later help in the planning stages of the coup) or an extended montage of hiring "accomplices" that never get the proper development to tell them apart--with the exception of the first one, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon)--beyond simple differences (One is severely afraid of heights, another is doubtful, yet another is faithful to the cause of taking on a challenge because it's there, and so on), all more or less vanish when the film shuts up to see Philippe in his element and on a wire.

The scene is alternately terrifying (Acrophobes, beware), funny (such as when Philippe meets two sets of authorities on either side of the wire), and tranquil (such as the initial step onto the wire, which seems to part the fog that isolates it from everything else and allows Philippe the moment of clarity to act and reveals the whole context of just how high he was in the air). The visual effects are stunning, both in their recreation of those sadly fallen towers and in the illusion of that great height. Gordon-Levitt is particularly strong in the sequence, determination and skill battling that all-important fear of death that calms the nerves beyond human understanding of the sensation. "The Walk" mirrors that sensation with a command of intimidating visual trickery.

Film Information

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Philippe Petit), Ben Kingsley (Papa Rudy), Charlotte Le Bon (Annie Allix), James Badge Dale (J.P.), Ben Schwartz (Albert), Steve Valentine (Barry Greenhouse), Benedict Samuel (Jean-Louis), Mark Camacho (Guy Tozolli), Cesar Domboy (Jean-Francois).

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, based on the book "To Reach the Clouds" by Philippe Petit.

Rated PG (thematic elements involving perilous situations, nudity, language, brief drug references, smoking).

123 minutes.

Released in select cities on September 30, 2015.