The story of Philippe Petit and his 1974 walk on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center are the stuff of legend, and that was before James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire, which featured the event through a combination of photos from the event and filmed recreations. There’s plenty of material already available for public consumption, so how can The Walk capture the imagination in a way Man on Wire hasn’t already?
Director Robert Zemeckis’ solution: put the audience on the creaking, swaying wire with Petit. Let audiences see the 110 stories’ worth of air between Petit and the ground, from Petit’s perspective. And place it all in IMAX 3D, creating the best example in years of the value of the latter format. It’s a stunning example of the power of narrative feature filmmaking, and it makes viewing in the IMAX 3D format an absolute necessity.
Petit’s walk on the wire, though, can’t sustain two hours of film on its own, which leaves the first 80 minutes or so of The Wire‘s two-hour runtime to build up to the main event. The Walk primarily tells the story of how Petit (played with a charmingly over-the-top French accent by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) came up with his tightrope walk, and how he executed it. Honestly, audience reaction to the first half hour will depend on how much whimsy one can handle. Petit is played by Gordon-Levitt, particularly early on, at his most adorkable self, and when Philippe finally meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), the film nearly overdoses on twee. Fortunately, the film soon after moves from Petit’s growing interest in performing to the planning of the walk. Most of the film’s supporting cast comes into play during this act, highlighted by James Badge Dale as a former Frenchman whose assimilation into New York includes the ability to mesh with pretty much any New Yorker.
Those who have seen Man on Wire will recognize similarities between the documentary’s approach to crafting the story and the way it’s portrayed here, and it’s basically portrayed like a heist film. The film also makes sure to include the documentary’s more memorable moments, including a scene where Petit gets naked in order to find a fishing wire on the south tower that was shot over from the north tower. Fans of Joseph Gordon-Levitt will have an extra reason to see this in IMAX 3D, for the record.
It’s the final act, though, that elevates the film into must-see territory. The shots of Petit walking on the wire are gorgeously made, and there’s an attention to detail that makes Petit’s every move seem like the whole event could lead to doom. This is also where Zemeckis’ technical prowess fully comes into play. His staging of the scene when Petit first steps out on the wire shows clouds slowly filling out the New York skyline, as Petit gets into a particular mental zone. Once he’s there, the clouds begin to clear. It not only helps Petit concentrate, but it helps place the audience in the scene where the wire is the only thing supporting Petit. And this sense of wonder and awe continues as Petit walks between the two towers, with Zemeckis creating shots that create a physical reaction to Petit’s movements.
What’s most remarkable about The Walk is that, in spite of any uncertainty about the ending being removed, there’s still a thrilling sense of wondering how Petit will survive this walk. Chalk it up to Zemeckis’ creative way of recreating the event, and his imaginative use of 3D. Here, he’s managed to create a version of this story that’s as essential as seeing the photos taken from the roof of the north tower that one fateful morning.