Wire-walking madman savant Phillipe Petit’s stomach-flipping 400 meters-high tightrope trek between New York’s fabled Twin Towers in 1974 has already received the celebrated cinematic treatment in Man On Wire, James Marsh’ 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about Petit’s near superhuman “coup”. But now it’s the turn of Robert Zemeckis’ boisterous and spritely The Walk, a digitally magicked up retelling of that historic event, which much like it’s protagonist possesses a preternatural balance of boundless joie de vivre and technical wizardry.
But just as how the impish Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a mix of physical theatrical gusto and a Pepe Le Pew accent, started off on wobbly legs before becoming the sure-footed, hubris-charged artiste who would eventually dance over the void, The Walk has a few stumbles before it reaches its 25-minute long hair-raising climax.
In the opening act of the film, narrated to us in artistic flashbacks by an animated Petit perched atop the Statue of Liberty, we learn of how he went from “circus clown” disappointment to his middle-income parents to a unicycle-riding, juggling busker on the streets of Paris, thanks to the mentoring of a Czech circus veteran named Papa Rudy (a gruff Ben Kingsley, seemingly speaking in four different accents simultaneously). It’s also here that he has a meet-cute with street-singer/art student Annie (a charming if underused Charlotte Le Bon), who would eventually become his lover and confidante and the first of the accomplices in his deadly daredevilry when he tells her of his obsession with those two titans of the Manhattan cityscape.
Ever since he first spotted a photo of World Trade Centre’s still-under-construction 104-story monoliths, Petit became possessed by the idea of stringing a 200 kg steel cable across the seemingly endless gulf between the Towers and traversing it, irrespective of the act’s actual legality – never mind its lethality. The manic, sometimes maniacal Frenchman ruminates with verve throughout his retelling about life and death – the latter a word he refuses to use – and how him stepping out onto that cable, uncertain of his return, is true living and a thing of artistic beauty.
But while this background is all necessary for the eventual pop-whiz le grand gugnol payoff, and certainly features a fair share of Zemeckis’ consummate directorial showmanship (he especially plays brilliantly with colour palettes), it does feel a touch languid and undercooked. It’s most certainly not bad by a long shot – both Zemeckis and Petit are too fine storytellers for that, and keep proceedings refreshingly buoyant – but it also just lacks some dramatic oomph.
That all changes massively once Petit and a small group of co-conspirators – including one that is ironically deathly afraid of heights – spurned on by their leader’s promises of creating the ultimate artwork, hop over the pond to New York itself and begin plotting for their herculean task. And when the logistics and reality of what Petit is trying to pull off become too daunting, and the aerialist is forced to draw on an eclectic mix of locals – like James Badge Dale’s fast talking salesman and his dopey friends – Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter Christopher Brown just step everything up to poppy effect.
With Alan Silvestri’s score providing a jazzy bebop undercurrent to affairs as the crew meticulously scout and prepare for their aerial jaunt, the film is transformed into Ocean’s Eleven by way of Inspector Clouseau, with Gordon-Levitt’s fantastically physical portrayal of Petit’s darkening obsession providing the occasional dramatic counterbalance to the film’s infectious effervescence and levity. That crackling vitality is carried through all the way to the film’s titular escapade – a suspenseful, physically unbelievable act that will leave you with your heart in your mouth.
And probably also the contents of your stomach on your seat if you suffer from vertigo as Zemeckis makes masterful use of IMAX’s ensorcelling screen real estate and eye-popping 3D effects to create a vertiginous spectacle the likes of which you rarely see. Zemeckis has always been a filmmaker who embraces technology and in Petit’s narrative he gets to utilize technical wizardry as more than just gimmickry but as a proper storytelling device. And with Dariusz Wolski’s heavenly cinematography framing such iconic images as Petit precariously dangling supine above his sure death on his beloved cable – no safety harness or net to catch him – with a beatific look of serenity on his face, Zemeckis delivers wholeheartedly on the Frenchman’s promises of achieving artistic brilliance.
Whether it would be as palpable when not viewed on the premium cinema format is a matter for debate though. Which is why I emphatically encourage you to view this on IMAX 3D, because while the accents may be wobbly on occasion and it does stumble initially, the thrilling heist mechanics and nerve-jangling tension of the film’s second half – even if you know how this well-documented story ends – should leave your head in the clouds.
Last Updated: October 8, 2015