Almost as audacious as Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire “coup” on the World Trade Center is The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’s dramatic screen retelling of the French daredevil’s feat.
There is already an excellent documentary account of the event, James Marsh’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire from 2008. A fictionalized version seems superfluous, especially with U.S. actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Petit with an accent and manner suggesting a Gallic parody by a young Robin Williams.
Yet somehow The Walk succeeds in spite of its immoderation, especially when the stunt is at hand — in 3D IMAX, no less — which is so often the way of Zemeckis movies. The man who set Tom Hanks adrift and also globally trotting (Cast Away, Forrest Gump), who had Denzel Washington flying drunk and upside down (Flight) and who turned Angelina Jolie into a cartoon siren (Beowulf) delights in extreme challenges and gilded lilies.
The “why” question posed and answered at the outset by Gordon-Levitt’s Petit, narrating from atop the Statue of Liberty in just one of the film’s many cornball inventions, also serves to justify this film, which Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Christopher Browne loosely base on Petit’s own accounts.
“C’est la vie!” Petit cries, as flashbacks reveal him as a brash juggler and wire walker in a Disneyfied Paris, dazzling tourists while at the same time wooing a winsome busker (Canada’s Charlotte Le Bon).
Seeking a life challenge, Petit begins planning “the artistic coup of the century”: walking a steel cable stretched between the north and south towers of New York’s spanking new World Trade Center, then nearing completion. (The foreshadowing of the Sept. 11 tragedy is thankfully minimal.)
His accomplices are a Looney Tunes version of Central Casting. They include a grumpy old circus patriarch (Ben Kingsley attempting French with a Czech accent); a sexy photographer (Clement Sibony); a fast-talking electronics salesman (James Badge Dale) and a wild-eyed inside man (Steve Valentine, a Salvador Dali look-alike).
It’s easy to buy into this absurd scenario because Gordon-Levitt likewise goes all in for his poetic protagonist — and also because it’s the 1970s, man, when the thirst for rebellion was as real as building security was lax.
Rolling eyes turn to popping ones when the time comes for Petit to begin what will prove to be multiple crossings and dramatic gestures, having overcome obstacles both real and imagined.
Zemeckis is truly in his realm as a cinematic conjuror when Petit steps onto the wire, stretched 1,350 vertiginous feet above Manhattan, leaving us for the next 30 minutes agape and wondering where our cynicism landed, along with our stomachs.