For acrophobics, The Walk will be an exercise in sadism. Director Robert Zemeckis’ camera caresses every inch of the Twin Towers, leering straight down into wide open spaces from 110 stories above the greatest city in the world. As master of all it surveys, the camera renders the vertiginous drop from angles that only magnify the altitude. With an almost maniacal glee, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Martian) forces the viewer to observe the distance between ground and sky. This is height porn of the highest order, and if the digitally created vistas weren’t scary enough, the entire thing is brought to you in 3-D. Nowhere is The Walk more deliciously cruel to the phobic than in an overhead shot of his protagonist, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) laying down on the circus high wire he has suspended between the two towers. The image is stomach-churning even before we realize he has to stand back up.
In the back of the viewer’s mind, Petit’s safety is never in doubt—he’s narrating the story and the outcome of his walk was the subject of the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Yet one can’t help but surrender to the astonishing movie magic of The Walk’s digitally recreated spectacle. The journey of Petit on his wire is so intense, thrilling, and suspenseful that a woman two seats from me bailed from the theater, never to return. Sitting in the fourth row of Alice Tully Hall at the New York Film Festival, it felt as if I could reach out and touch the breeze blowing through Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hair.
The Walk follows Petit from his childhood days in France to the fateful day in 1974 when he executed his feat of derring-do between the roofs of the newly finished World Trade Center buildings. His love of the high wire begins with a visit to a circus where he sees a performance by an acrobatic troupe led by Papa Rudy (a scene-stealing Ben Kingsley). Papa Rudy’s reputation as a tightrope genius precedes him, and Petit wants to learn from the best. Thrown out of his house by his fed-up father (“The carrots are cooked!” is Dad’s kiss-off line), the adult Petit pays for Papa Rudy’s expertise with money Petit makes as a street performer.
Petit falls in love with the idea of his New York City stunt after seeing an ad in the paper promoting the under-construction Twin Towers. He also falls for fellow street performer Annie (a fine Charlotte Le Bon) after arrogantly invading her busking space to do his act. She becomes his first “accomplice,” the term Petit uses for everyone who will help him realize the “artistic vision” of his Twin Towers sky-bound shuffle. His merry band of accomplices eventually expands to include Jean-Louis (an excellent James Badge Dale) and Albert (Ben Schwartz, also quite good), a man whose overwhelming fear of heights will surely be tested before the closing credits. Their plan to get Petit on that wire is executed with an exciting snap reminiscent of the best caper films.
As Petit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt affects a French accent that, while technically accurate in regard to its real-life counterpart’s voice, is more than a little distracting. Gordon-Levitt couples this with an extremely physical performance and an occasionally arrogant and smug demeanor that ripples with self-confidence. After a while, I started to enjoy the sheer theatricality of his performance. Despite his diminutive name and stature, Petit must be a larger-than-life character lest he be completely upstaged by the awe-inspiring environment upon which he frames his artistry.
As good as Gordon-Levitt is, the true stars of The Walk are the Twin Towers themselves. We are so used to the tragic nature of the last time we saw them that their shiny, new appearance here is a welcome reminder of how grand they were. Depicted in their infancy, they are fresh, new, and full of promise. Philippe Petit brings the first of many dreams they will usher into reality. The emotions I felt at seeing them again is indescribable; they supplemented a film that, at times, felt oddly empty despite its characters’ passions.
As someone who grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey in the 70s and 80s, the Twin Towers were a familiar sight. Eventually, I’d work there, and the familiarity of what I saw when I looked out the window probably helped me not to freak out no matter how crazy Zemeckis got with his visuals. I recalled many hours at the Observation Deck and even more hours just looking at the Towers in the New York Skyline from the Jersey side of the Hudson. I never thought that I’d see the day when my own personal constellation of direction would no longer be visible. For a few hours, The Walk returned the North Star to my sky.