“The Walk,” a new film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, harkens back to an era when Evel Knievel was a superstar and human achievement wasn’t measured by how many Instagram followers you have. Even though we know how it ends—it’s a matter of historical record in the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary—the last half hour packs some vertiginous thrills.
Unsurprisingly of the story of a man who became famous for staging a 1974 tight rope walk between the world’s tallest buildings is unabashedly theatrical. When we first see Petit he’s setting up the story perched atop the Statue of Liberty with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center looming in the background.
His narration is as straight and taut as a tightrope strung between two poles, walking through the narrative step-by-step. The story begins with the young Petit learning his trade at the feet of high wire maestro Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), through to meeting his beautiful muse Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and hatching a plan to illegally string a wire between the two towers and perform a walk on “the most spectacular stage in the world.”
“It’s impossible,” he says, “but I’ll do it,” and he does, with the aid of several accomplices, in spectacular fashion.
“The Walk” is based on a true story but presented as an urban fairy tale, the story of a man determined to show the world that anything is possible. It’s a tall but true tale. Gordon-Levitt swings for the fences with a big, exuberant performance. He’s high strung, charming and arrogant, the kind of guy who says, “For me to walk on the wire is life. C’est la vie.” He’s also a dreamer, a man whose passions demonstrate for the rest of us that art still has the power to instil wonder. It’s a lovely message told in a shambling way.
Director Robert Zemeckis takes his time getting to the walk. He treats the story as a procedural, although a whimsical one, that tries to slide by on charm for two thirds of it’s running time. It’s certainly the first major movie of the year to future mime, and just to make sure we get the dreamy, mischievous feel he’s trying to portray, lilting snippets of the “La Dolce Vita” soundtrack can be heard in an early sequence.
When he gets to the end, the ascent to the top of the tower and the walk itself, the film becomes a thriller with 3D visuals that should come with a vertigo trigger alert. Anyone with a fear of heights be warned, “The Walk” has a ‘You are there’ feel as soon as Petit takes his first step on the rope. It’s a beautiful, lyrical and visually stunning sequence that is worth the wait through the film’s slow start.
“The Walk” takes too many tentative steps in it’s first hour and is a bit on the money in its storytelling—for instance “I Want to Take You Higher” blares on the soundtrack when Petit sees the Towers in person for the first time—but Gordon-Levitt’s relentless charm offensive, Le Bon’s charisma and a breathless climax provide a tribute not only to the power of art to elate but also the to the buildings that set the stage for Petit’s feat.