Movie review: ‘The Walk’ is powerfully excellent |

Movie review: ‘The Walk’ is powerfully excellent

Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Philippe Petite in a scene from, "The Walk." The film recounts high-wire artist Phillippe Petit’s cabled walk between the Twin Towers in 1974.
AP | Sony Pictures



• Directed By Robert Zemeckis

• Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Guillaume Baillargeon, Emilie Leclerc, Ben Kingsley, Cesar Domboy, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Clement Sibony, Jade Kindar-Martin

• Rated PG, Drama, 123 minutes

Rarely does a film reach the zenith of art. “The Walk,” depicting Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 outlaw high-wire act performed between the towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, does just that as it moves the docudrama along in poetic cadence. Director Robert Zemeckis’s film teaches us Petit’s love of the wire.

In the beginning, that love is expressed as his heart’s desire, but the film fails to inform us that, while mastering his artistry, Petit so neglected his general education that he was expelled from five different schools and was ultimately kicked out of his parents’ home.

This happens because, rather than setting out to defy authority, Petit is consumed by his own artistic vision. Consequently, “The carrots are cooked.”

Adapted from Petit’s autobiography, the tightrope walker takes to the air in exaltation of his craft and delight in mischievous showmanship. Refusing to buy a license for his Parisian street shows, Petit slyly inserts his newly acquired skills of unicycling, juggling, magic and miming, all performed in a hand-drawn circle he calls “My sacred space.”

Soon enough he meets Papa Rudy, the irascible Czech patriarch of a wire-walking dynasty, portrayed by Ben Kingsley. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Papa Rudy mentors Petit, but before long the rookie storms off, declaring, “I will not become a circus clown.”

In 1967 Petit chances across an architect’s rendering of the Twin Towers, soon to be constructed in New York City. That very day Petit determines he will hang his wire between the as-of-yet unbuilt towers and “walk the void.”

During the seven years Petit spends perfecting his craft and working up to fulfilling this dream, he collects friends willing to aid the outlaw cause Petit dubs “the coup.”

His single-minded dedication to the feat is detailed over many months, during which Petit and his accomplices scope out the still-under-construction buildings and find extraordinary ways to impersonate architects and workmen in order to gain access to the building’s rooftops.

Rather than spoil the fascinating mechanics of this phase, Zemeckis succeeds by showing us, instead of explaining, precisely how Petit accomplishes his task. Many a harrowing moment ensues, but Petit confidently takes each in stride.

The amazing truth is that Petit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth and performing tricks between the 101-story buildings. Here, that time is condensed to 20 minutes.

As much as I enjoyed his high-wire act, if forced to watch it for 45 minutes I’m uncertain that my flip-flopping stomach could have kept the popcorn down.

It’s nearly impossible not to choke up during a final shot of the towers at sunrise as they reflect the red-orange glow of the rising sun. Zemeckis hangs our hearts from his high-wire, even seducing us into looking down.

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