★ ★ ★
“Wow!” That’s the reaction many moviegoers are likely to have after seeing Robert Zemeckis’ breathtaking re-creation of Philippe Petit‘s dazzling 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center. The central 17-minute sequence — especially when seen in IMAX 3D — will make viewers feel that they are right there with Petit, on a thin cable 110 stories above the ground. We sense the dizzying height, and feel the exhilaration of being suspended midair among the clouds, as the petite Frenchman crisscrosses the wire several times, at one point even lying down on it to gaze at the heavens. It all happens in what seems like real time, and the unhurried pace allows us to experience every step and truly appreciate the grandeur of this magnificent aerial feat. It’s one of those great movie scenes that will live long in your memory. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is mostly forgettable.
The Walk begins with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) perched on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, the World Trade Center rising majestically in the background. Petit narrates the entire story from this vantage point; it’s a decision that comes off as a bit hokey, and it immediately pulls viewers into the realm of imagination rather than making us feel that what we’re seeing is happening in reality. (It also doesn’t help that Gordon-Levitt‘s French accent is shaky at best.) We then flashback to Paris, as Petit learns the basics of wire walking from a circus showman (Ben Kingsley). He also meets a guitar-playing street singer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) around this time, and the two quickly become an inseparable pair. Petit soon reads about the construction of the World Trade Center while waiting in a dentist’s office, and begins planning his daring and highly illegal walk between the towers. He recruits a couple of accomplices — a photographer (Clément Sibony) and a math whiz (César Domboy) who is deathly afraid of heights — walks between the towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame for practice, and sets off for New York to investigate the nearly completed buildings and recruit more helpers. Once the action moves to Manhattan, the movie picks up considerable steam and starts to play out like a high-stakes heist flick. Of course, we already know the outcome due to the narration and framing device, which significantly undermines the suspense the film tries to build. By contrast, James Marsh‘s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire does a much better job of laying out the particulars of the walk and building tension.
“It’s impossible. But I’ll do it,” says Petit early on when he begins planning his walk. One might imagine that Zemeckis said the same thing when he first stumbled upon Petit’s story and considered the possibility of putting the walk on film. Zemeckis is an acknowledged wizard of special effects, as his movies (the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, Flight) can attest. And he summons all of his technical prowess in The Walk‘s grand finale to produce a heart-pounding, visceral experience that could only be achieved through the magic of cinema. Of course, much of the emotion comes from the venue itself: The re-creations of the World Trade Center and 1970s-era New York City are nothing less than stunning. Zemeckis even closes out his picture with a beautiful yet haunting farewell shot of the Twin Towers that honors their memory, but wisely avoids tear-inducing sentiment.
So, is The Walk worth the added expense of viewing it in IMAX 3D? For hardcore movie fanatics, the answer is yes. It’s a technical marvel they will want to experience in all of its vertigo-inducing splendor. For others, probably not; 2D will work just fine. Overall, this walk isn’t one to be remembered — except for the 17 minutes when it is truly glorious.