Watching Tom Cruise climb the Burj Khalifa tower in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” especially in IMAX, gave me a terrifying fear of heights I’m not sure I will ever overcome. Granted, I’m pretty cool with flying in a commercial airplane at 35,000 feet, but when you’re hanging from outside a building and can still see the ground beneath you, you cannot help but feel infinitely screwed and on the verge of death.
That fear was re-awakened with Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” which recreates Philippe Petit’s walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center back on August 7, 1974. It is based on Petit’s book “To Reach the Clouds” which in turn was the inspiration for one of the best documentaries from a few years ago, “Man onWire.” But this time Zemeckis dares to literally put us in Petit’s shoes as he makes that perilous walk from one tower to the other, and the result is one of the most intense movie going experiences I have ever had the fortune of being a part of.
When it comes to Zemeckis, he has overdosed on CGI effects for years now. However, along with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, he takes all his technical wizardry to recreate the twin towers to brilliant effect. As with “Man on Wire,” it was great to see those towers standing tall once again, and “The Walk” makes us feel like they never really left us.
But more importantly, Zemeckis feels like we are on top of those towers with the characters, and it creates a dizzying effect from the first moment Petit sets foot on the roof and stands perilously close the edge. But that’s just the appetizer for what is to come next.
When it comes to the actual walk sequence, it starts with Petit having one foot on the wire and another on the building, and the anticipation of him taking that foot off the building is almost unbearable. Zemeckis puts us way up in the air with Petit as he begins his insane high wire act miles above the sidewalks of New York City. We feel the lack of a safety harness, we feel the wind which threatens to get stronger without much warning, we feel the infinite tension and utter excitement of his friends as they watch from the opposite tower or from the ground below and, like the New York cops who finally arrive, we just want him to get off the wire and back down to the ground safely. And let’s not forget the sound of the wire itself and of the pieces of metal which somehow hold it together.
I always look forward to movies that you experience more than you watch, and “The Walk” had me experiencing emotions and feelings that I thought had long since left me. When Petit takes a break on the wire and lays down on it as if at complete peace with himself, part of me wanted to shout out, “GET UP! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, YOU MADE YOUR POINT!” But at the same time, you do feel his utter sense of triumph at completing this impossible act as we all know we won’t ever see something quite like this ever again.
So it’s a bit of a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t measure up on a dramatic level. “The Walk” ends up going through the usual biopic conventions where the main character struggles with whether or not to pull off this walk, and the other characters who helped Petit pull this coup off don’t register as strongly as they should. Among the standouts are Charlotte Le Bon who plays Petit’s musical muse, Annie Allix, and Sir Ben Kingsley who excels as he usually does as Petit’s mentor, Papa Rudy. Both inhabit their characters and make them rise above the clichés they normally render characters in a biopic like this needless and extraneous to the plot.
Playing Petit is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and he captures Petit’s unbridled enthusiasm for life in a way that’s completely infectious. Levitt is a bit hamstrung by an accent which makes him sound more like a French cartoon, but that becomes a moot point after a while. He’s also a joy to watch in the movie’s opening sequences where we learn how he survived on the streets of Paris as a performer and of when he first learned of the twin towers. Zemeckis, however, has Levitt doing a voiceover narration throughout the movie which soon becomes an unnecessary nuisance which just takes away from many scenes instead of adding to them. Seriously, the narration is as necessary to “The Walk” as the scenes with an elderly Tonto and that little kid at the fair in the abysmal “Lone Ranger.”
But despite its flaws, “The Walk” is a movie you must see, especially in a theater with the biggest screen available. To fully experience the awesomeness Zemeckis and company accomplished on a visual level, you must check it out in IMAX. Oh yeah, and the 3D is a nice addition to it as well. While it may not chronicle Petit’s mission to infiltrate the towers and pull off this crazy stunt as well as “Man on Wire” did, it is still a visual and emotional marvel that cannot be ignored. It doesn’t matter if you know how this story begins and ends; “The Walk” will have you hanging onto your seat or your loved one for dear life. It’s not every day that we hang out on the roofs of the world’s tallest buildings.
* * * ½ out of * * * *