Going into The Walk, we were intensely aware that the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his daredevil 1974 mid-air walk between the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center (1,363 feet above the sidewalk) had already been brought to the screen, in James Marsh’s thrilling 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. So we were frankly prepared to be unimpressed.
We didn’t count on the power of The Walk‘s imagery. Sure, the long-shot CGI inserts of the WTC against the city skyline have those fuzzy, indistinct edges that few special effects crews have been able to solve. But the scene of Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a corny French accent and forced amiability) striding the wire in the morning mist, the wind licking at his wounded foot, definitely produces sweaty palms. And the lively interplay between Petit and his accomplices — played by César Domboy, Benedict Samuel, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, a hammy Ben Kingsley, and Charlotte Bon as Annie Allix, Petit’s love interest — gives a better sense of the outrageousness of the stunt.
The other ingredient we discounted was the directorial hand of Robert Zemeckis — working from a screenplay he wrote with Christopher Browne, based on Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds. The veteran Hollywood creator of pseudo-folksy spectacles (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) still has his tendency toward cuteness at all costs — the entire buildup to Petit’s walk is a slog through froth — but in this case it fits the story. Petit is a daredevil but also the epitome of a street performer. His art is to make the crowd sigh and cheer, and that’s exactly what The Walk does. The fact that the site of his masterpiece is now a vanished setting of patriotic tragedy is regrettably fitting. Petit brought a smile to a place where there is none.