The Walk opens on a question: Why? It tells the true story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who, in 1974, decided to string his high-wire between the towers of the newly built World Trade Center in New York City. The question is a natural response, and a reasonable place to start. Why risk death on a dangerous and illegal act of daredevil theatrics over 100 stories above the ground? To Petit, who fancies himself an artist, a death-defying poet of motion, it is do or do not. There is no why. It’s quickly apparent that neither the man nor the film can adequately articulate a response that’ll explain. They both leave it to the sheer beauty and wonder conjured up by the act itself to feel out an answer. He’s a dreamer who simply wants to surprise the world with something amazing, a fleeting moment of transcendence, because he believes he can. Why? No. Why not?
Think of the film as one sparkling feat of ingenious three-dimensional spectacle paying homage to another. Director Robert Zemeckis has made a career out of pushing special effects out on the high-wire of believability. He’s made time traveling characters doubling back on themselves (the Back to the Futures), cartoons interacting with real actors (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), grotesque slapstick maiming (Death Becomes Her), manipulated historical footage (Forrest Gump, Contact), scarily vivid plane crashes (Cast Away, Flight), and uncannily fluid motion capture worlds (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol). Taking full advantage of what movies can do, he’s a master technician interested in telling classically developed narratives in popcorn cinema at the edge of what’s possible. So of course he’s committed to bringing to life the story of a man who saw the impossible and stepped out on the wire anyway.
Starting with a sharp close-up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s grinning face – it arcs out of the 3D frame with topographical specificity like Herzog’s cave paintings – The Walk’s first shot pulls back until we see he’s perched on the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Behind him glowing computer sunshine gleams off a perfect shiny CGI New York City skyline. It’s vintage in look and theatrical in presentation, utterly and perfectly unreal. Playing Petit gives Gordon-Levitt a chance to be larger than life, leaning into ebullient ringleader’s bravado. He plays a man who’s always putting on a show. How else could he convince not only himself, but a small group of accomplices as well, to plot a stunt that never stops looking insane to outside eyes? With an acrobat’s posture and a showman’s energy, he breaks the fourth wall, jauntily narrating his story like he’s telling a tall tale. Well, it’s certainly tall, and would definitely be hard to believe if it weren’t already proficiently chronicled in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire.
We watch as fluid, sparkling CGI and Dariusz Wolski’s gliding camera animate broad nostalgically filtered scenes of Petit’s early life. As a boy, a family of tightrope walkers performing in a circus near his small town fascinated him. He strung up some rope between two trees in his backyard and slowly learned to keep his balance. (It’s a fine allegory for any kid who knew early passion for an art.) Once grown, he trained with an expert (Ben Kingsley) before heading to Paris where he scraped by with money made from impromptu sidewalk shows. Eventually, he’s crossing small ponds, then the two peaks of the Notre Dame cathedral. But it’s seeing New York’s twin towers in a magazine that really ignites his imagination.
For most of its runtime after the introduction to Petit’s origins, the film – scripted by Zemeckis with Christopher Browne – is a thin, light, and functional heist movie, where all the reconnaissance, team-building, and scheming has a benign, maybe even noble, goal. The only thing they’re out to steal is a moment of bystanders’ attention, a moment to look up in awe at what one determined daredevil is capable of. He recruits his girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) to travel to New York with him. Two friends (Clément Sibony and César Domboy) join them, willing to help sneak the wire between the tops of the towers. Along the way they find some Americans (Steve Valentine, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Benedict Samuel) who are willing to get involved in this daring scheme. There’s a simple pleasure in process during the planning stages as a brisk montage flows from Petit’s imagination out into the tricky real world of elevators, foreman, and security guards.
Often treading close to surface-level corniness – music booms and the camera swirls with sentimental reverence, while the ensemble trades likable banter – the movie is completely intertwined with Petit’s exuberant self-confidence. It builds in anticipation. How could a recreation of this impossible act possibly make the build-up pay off? There’s double-edged suspense, wondering if Petit will fall, and if the movie will. Then he steps off the edge of a tower onto a wire strung across the 200-foot gap 1,350 feet in the air. That’s a long way down. It’s terrifying and beautiful, intense feelings mixed in one transcendent breathless sequence. Zemeckis floats across the expanse with Gordon-Levitt in some of the most brilliantly realized heights I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. It’s worth the wait. Both the film and the stunt that inspired it are examples of people putting faith in the power of their skill and planning to pull off impressive amazement.
When Gordon-Levitt first stands at the very corner of the roof, wind blowing his hair as he wavers, holding his precarious balance, the effect is shockingly peaceful in its intensity. The movie climaxes with this dizzying, lovely sequence, as overwhelmingly tense and lovely as it should be to sell the majesty of the moment. It’s moving to see the characters nervous and astonished as Petit slowly maneuvers across the open air with no safety precaution to catch him. That’s also what provokes a tangibly physiological response. I’ve never been as lightheaded with vertigo while sitting in a theater—palms sweating, teeth clenching, stomach fluttering. Not since Scorsese’s Hugo has a big studio production used 3D so well. Here it captures not only the scale of the stunt, and the danger below, but the strangely serene unreality of a truly remarkable moment. The effects are a perfectly realized essence, not photorealist, but beyond, convincing and strikingly vivid in depth and scope.
And yet it’s not only a thrill of technical accomplishment. It’s stirring to see a dream realized. It’s a simple story told with complex visuals conjuring convincing and transporting awe, inviting an audience to contemplate what a small group of dedicated human beings are capable of, great creation, but also great danger. 9/11 resonances are deftly sidestepped, but are difficult to avoid entirely. Though they remain unspoken, it’s hard not to feel the tower’s extratextual modern absence elevating the final moments as Petit leaves us with his wistful pride in his old memories, and the skyline slowly fades to black. Zemeckis has skillfully returned us to a time when the towers were riskily made magic, Petit daring us to watch and gasp.