'The Walk' pays high-wire tribute to World Trade Center

Docudrama about 1970s tightrope stunt comes to life at 110 stories

Wednesday September 30, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 was little more than a footnote in New York history. The French street performer and tightrope walker's illegal, audacious stroll from building to building commanded a few news cycles and made Petit's reputation, but gradually faded from public memory.

In the wake of Sept. 11, however, Petit's stunt retroactively takes on enormous symbolic impact, as demonstrated by the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire and the new docudrama The Walk. Both films serve as moving tributes to the towers without detailing their eventual fate. Man on Wire is such a crackling entertainment that the new movie feels a little redundant, but director Robert Zemeckis attempts something the documentary couldn't pull off in replicating the sights and sensations of the walk, as if the audience was standing at Petit's side, 110 stories high. Zemeckis succeeds at that, if not everything else.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with a wry French accent, plays Petit and is also the story's narrator. Early scenes jump around in time to detail Petit's youthful obsession with wire-walking, and then his career as a guerilla street artist in Paris. At one point an American tourist in a Stetson sees his sidewalk mime act and drawls, "Well, shut my mouth!" Nuance is not The Walk's strong suit.

Petit learns of the World Trade Center's construction in the early 1970s and becomes instantly obsessed with the idea of walking across them in what he calls a daring "coup." He enlists accomplices, beginning with his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), although none of the side characters get much development.

After a strained, corny portrayal of European circus training, The Walk finds its comfort zone by emphasizing the heist-film aspects of the story. Petit and his team case the two towers and determine how to access both roofs and build a safe wire rig, without tipping off security, before sunrise.

The Walk demonstrates both Zemeckis' strengths and shortcomings, as the filmmaker has frequently shown a flair for groundbreaking visual effects, like the blend of live actors and animated characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit or superimposing Tom Hanks in baby-boomer history with Forrest Gump. But when he neglects his scripts, the visual dazzle can't always compensate for empty emotions, as evidence of his 3-D motion capture film The Polar Express.

In The Walk, Zemeckis seems most jazzed by recreating the top of the World Trade Center towers and exploiting 3-D depth of field to its fullest. With juggling pins, metal cables, and even arrows jutting toward the audience, The Walk is one of the rare movies in which the 3-D enhances the story rather than distracts from it. When Petit finally inches out onto the wire, an episode with more surprises than you might imagine, the film's intensity becomes almost literally unbearable. It can induce more vertigo than, well, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

The Walk's visual achievement dovetails with Petit's stated intention to bring wonder to his spectators. While the Sept. 11 attacks on the buildings were meant to demoralize a populace, Petit's stunt serves as a source of inspiration and, viewed through the prism of contemporary film, reclaims a little of the positive aspects of the towers as symbols. The Walk may not be a great film, but it's hard to be unmoved by its message. ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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