Sometimes a movie becomes something transcendent and turns into an experience. “The Walk” is one of those amazing films you just have to see to believe. It also joins the ranks of the tiny handful of movies like “Avatar” and “Gravity” that you simply must see in 3D on the big screen to truly appreciate.
The movie is based on the real-life stunt pulled by high-wire artist Philippe Petit in 1974 when he strung a line between the rooftops of the freshly constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked it without a safety harness.
“The Walk” was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who is nothing if not an accomplished technical filmmaker. The movie magic he achieves in this film’s final act is without equal as he not only flawlessly recreates the once-proud towers but also places the audience harrowingly out on that wire.
With the added depth of 3D, Zemeckis plays with the vertigo-inducing heights with an almost poetic glee. It also made me a nervous wreck. As a person with a moderate fear of heights, this movie worked me over.
During the film’s final act, my palms were sweaty and I actually found myself looking away from the screen unable to bear the tension. Being the jaded film critic I am, you reach a certain point where you think you’ve seen it all and you are the rock the water of a filmmaker’s ambitions breaks over (we are a pretentious, conceited lot of jerks, to be sure).
The realization that movies still have the power to turn you to putty is about as good as it gets.
If there is a knock on Zemeckis it is he is an overly simplistic storyteller. Fortunately, the crux of the film doesn’t get more complex than “Dude on wire, let’s hope he doesn’t fall.” For all of the non-high-wire prelude, we are ushered along by the winning charm of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as a man whose ambition and artistry is infectious. We follow his progression from childhood daredevil to street performer to rebellious artist (before he took on the World Trade Center, he walked between the two spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral).
Because his plan to walk between the Twin Towers is all kinds of illegal, Petit enlists the help of several “accomplices” as the middle section of the movie takes on the personality of a heist movie.
From his mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), to his girlfriend (the fetching Charlotte Le Bon) to some dude he meets in New York (James Badge Dale), Petit enlists a whole team to help him sneak his equipment to the rooftops and hang his wire under the cover of darkness.
What underscores this entire movie and elevates it to even loftier heights is the strange nobility behind Petit’s actions. He’s not some thrill-seeking, Mountain-Dew-swilling adrenaline junkie. He sees the walk as an artistic performance, one that is meant to inspire the whole world by making the impossible possible.
You can’t go wrong with a movie about following your dream. Zemeckis also deserves a ton of credit for what this movie is not. He shows an insane amount of restraint by resisting the temptation of overtly referencing 9/11. There is a certain sadness seeing the World Trade Center restored to its majestic glory and Zemeckis keenly knows that is enough.
“The Walk” is an incredible, joyous movie that absolutely, positively must be seen in a theater. I plan on seeing it again, but this time I’m going to bring a parachute.
“The Walk” is rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations and for some nudity, language, brief drug references, and smoking.