Marvelously done and awe-inspiring. The Walk is going to be accused of schmaltz, but to the right optimist, it is splendid and uplifting, beautiful and nimble, and one of the more unusual true stories. In 1974, the lithe Frenchman Phillippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gathered a crew to sneak up to the top floor of the newly erected World Trade Center and by the morning, did a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. The wind from 1,350 feet up would knock virtually everybody off, but Petit cannot be mistaken for normal.
I’d of course seen this story played out in the terrific award-winning 2009 documentary “Man on Wire,” and didn’t think I’d need it played out in a dramatization. I couldn’t have predicted just how good “The Walk” made me feel, and sometimes a movie just catches you up in its flow. I have for long taken director Robert Zemeckis for granted, but I have watched lots of his movies again in the last couple of years. “Flight” (2012) and “Cast Away” (2000) are his most mature works and yet contain sensational feelings in them. And “Contact” (1997) really took me by surprise when I saw it again, it was far more complex and imaginative than I had first remembered.
If “The Walk” doesn’t have much psychological complexity, that’s probably because its hero is infused with exuberance and pretty much stays embedded on that note. He begins as a magician working on the streets of Paris, which is first captured in black & white monochrome, has a jaunty air about it. Petit trains upon the tightrope in different arenas, takes on comrades, picks up a girlfriend, and is inspired the day he spots the Twin Towers of New York in a magazine. Sure it’s an illegal break-in to surpass security and scale the tower with unauthorized equipment. But Petit likes challenges.
I don’t know how Joseph Gordon-Levitt does it, but he has so much joy and gusto in his performance. His French accent is theatrical, but so is the guy he’s playing. He talks right at you in narration intervals where he stands on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. And even though he tells you the story you’re about the see, you relish in his zeal for tall tales.
In hindsight, all the comrades, mentors and the girlfriend are distant second characters. Yet Petit is always the beaming center of attention, and how could he not be? If the Twin Towers were still standing, that walk would still be only one in a lifetime. Petit had a bizarre special gift, and his delivery of that gift was graceful and beautiful beyond words.
Petit embraced his 15 minutes of fame, but the conclusion of “The Walk” is a bit of a whitewash, and you’d know that if you saw “Man on Wire” and saw how fame went to his head. He became a hedonist. But Zemeckis here is embracing all the man’s positive traits, and in this case, the intention is appropriately luminous.
123 Minutes. Rated PG.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / INSPIRATIONAL / FEEL-GOOD FRIDAY NIGHTS