A visually spectacular recreation of Philippe Petit’s daring 1974 walk on a wire between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, premiered as the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival, is a directorial triumph for Robert Zemeckis. The 3-D film gives an audience thrills and the feeling of being with Petit on that wire every perilous inch of the way. Zemeckis has used special effects brilliantly, so that we have the feeling of looking down on New York from the heights, and also seeing the towers in all their glory before the tragic terrorist attack that obliterated them.
“The Walk,” in addition to being dazzling entertainment, inherently stands as a memorial to those towers and all who lost their lives. It also, of course, is a tribute to the skill of Petit, played with devilish charm and brazen nerve by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The film takes its time delivering the set-up, perhaps too much time, as Petit sets out from Paris to plan his daring escapade, recruit those needed to help and gets the support from pretty girlfriend Annie, played sympathetically and at times with exasperation by Charlotte Le Bon, who ultimately looks up breathlessly and fearfully from the street at Petit’s risky caper. Ben Kingsley is cast as Petit’s mentor.
The story is framed by Petit atop the Statue of Liberty recalling the events, as we see the Twin Towers glistening in the background. Once the secret move toward the climactic event begins to gather momentum, suspense sets in even though we already know the outcome.
Petit and his crew, an amusing lot, have to figure out how to get equipment in position despite the security. Then there is the matter of stringing the sturdy wire from one tower to another via an arrow and securely anchoring it. When Petit finally starts his walk, the showmanship truly begins.
Apart from the drama of his skill, there is his personality. Not satisfied to walk in just one direction, he wants more--to go back and forth as well as doing extra perilous movements. There is also humor between the effects, as with increasing crowds watching from below, police gather on both towers stupidly bent on making him come in to be arrested. Their presence only makes him decide to turn around and go the other way. The police pressure adds to the risk.
One may wonder why there wasn’t considerable wind that high up in the sky that would make the wire journey impossible. But history is history. Petit achieved his goal in full glory and became a hero for it.
Zemeckis, whose previous films include “Forrest Gump” and “Back to the Future” and who wrote the astute screenplay with Christopher Browne, has skillfully used contemporary digital technology to create scenes that might make audience audience members with vertigo wince. By the time we get to the actual walk, it is clear that this is one of the year’s most impressive screen achievements. A Sony Pictures release. Reviewed September 27, 2015.