Having already been the focus of an Academy Award winning documentary titled, Man on Wire, the tale of Philipe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 was a questionable one to retell in a biopic format—especially since the documentary came out in 2008. What more could a narrative retelling do than witnessing the actual footage of the event? The answer is, well…a lot. Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk is a daring film that sets itself up for big rewards and delivers them without hardly a single flaw.
It might’ve been a questionable choice at first to cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, the Frenchman who is all but subtle in his ostentatious ways. But like the movie itself, he exceeds all expectations and pulls off an exceptional performance. Perfectly capturing the showmanship of Petit, Gordon-Levitt and the movie itself honor his theatricality by cutting away to Gordon-Levitt as he narrates the story from the Statue of Liberty. He loves the city, and when he is on screen, our eyes never leave him—he is unpredictable and loves to put on a show, and we love every moment of it. Like the movie, he aims high and does everything he can to hit his target. He reminds us that dreams—no matter how big or crazy—can be achieved.
The movie pans out on several different levels. For one part it is a biopic of Petit and the events that led him to August 7, 1974. We see his youth, what led to his fascination with tight-rope walking, his time as a street performer, and then eventually the day itself. It also plays, in many ways, as a spy-caper (with music and all) in the preparation for the walk. Picking up a crew along the way, played by James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Steve Valentine, and a love interest (Charlotte Le Bon), Petit infiltrates the towers and sets up his stunt. The supporting cast is more of a means to get to the stunt itself, and we never really learn anything about them before or after the walk, resulting in some two-dimensional characters. Ben Kingsley also appears as Petit’s mentor, Papa Rudy, who more or less disappears after his wisdom has been imparted. But the movie isn’t really about the characters—its about the walk.
When the actual walk arrives, it carries with it a huge emotional impact, but it also becomes less of a movie and more of an experience. Out of nowhere, as Petit is preparing to step out onto the wire, everything becomes clear and you realize that you’re there with him. The incredible IMAX 3D places you right there on the wire. Looking down at the 1,300 ft. drop, out across the city as the sun rises on the horizon, and along the infinitely extending wire towards the other tower is one of the most unforgettable moments you will have in a movie this year. But then he takes a step, and it is a wholly transcendental, profound, and jaw-dropping moment as waves of emotion and anxiety crash over you. Not only do you feel the pressure on him as each slip and gust of wind sends you into cold sweats, but the moments of triumph bring an overwhelmingly powerful high of accomplishment. The walk could have been a movie in itself—it just gets that much better when the moments leading up to it are a delight and a wonderment of filmmaking.
Never does the movie go out of its way to remind us of the tragic events of 9/11 because it could have been an easy way to evoke some emotions. Zemeckis honors the towers by showing them at their birth, the importance they played to Petit, and their significance to the city itself; and since we all remember what happened, we each have a moment of clarity either before or after that the towers are no longer there, and it is a weighty blow that creeps up on you. The Walk is an exemplary film that will leave you breathless as you applaud not only Petit, but everyone who made this immensely determined movie that seldom loses its focus. The Walk is an experience, a memorial, and an inspiration all wrapped up in an unforgettable package.