Robert Zemeckis' The Walk is an enthralling tribute to scale. It uses dazzling 3-D cinematography to turn New York City's expansive skyline into a man-made mountain range yearning to be climbed and admired. High above the scuttlebutt of everyday life, concrete and clouds perfectly converge in what becomes a gravity-defying playground for high-wire artist Philippe Petit.
In 1974 the French daredevil connected a wire between the newly constructed Twin Towers. It was an epic subversion of law, order and sanity that ended with him performing for more than 45 minutes to a large and befuddled crowd 100-plus floors below. Initially an unwelcome symbol of capitalism, the World Trade Center would henceforth be seen as a majestic piece of American iconography thanks in small part to Petit's epic stunt.
The Walk begins as a standard biopic, showing singular flashes of style and structure with its oddly affecting narration. Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) directly addresses the audience while standing atop the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers perfectly framed in the background. The shot juxtaposes the man with his own legend thanks to the seamlessness of digital compositing.
Zemeckis then takes a safer route in examining Petit's origin as a struggling Parisian performer and adrenaline obsessive. The character is constantly in a state of heightened anxiety, all nerves and very little filter. After discovering the power of wire walking early in life, Petit begins to learn the trade under a master named Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), spending most of his time practicing in circus tents and assembling a team of conspirators to help realize his "dream."
Once Petit and his team touch down on the East Coast, The Walk becomes a tightly wound heist film that culminates in a highly suspenseful and sublime third act taking place almost entirely atop the Twin Towers. To get there, Zemeckis builds tension out of the pitfalls threatening to derail Petitís objectives. Besides a tech guru played by the ever-reliable James Badge Dale, his American recruits are suspect at best. Mere days before the walk, Petit steps on a rusty nail. But none of these compare with the man's psychological fragility.
Gordon-Levitt's portrayal of Petit's mental instability seems overblown at times. The boyish actor balances the character's fluctuations in mood but never seems completely at peace until the quieter moments high atop the ground. Maybe the man was this much of a spoiled brat, but his outbursts call to mind an insecure filmmaker ordering about a shocked production team. It's all sound and fury and ultimately tells us very little about the source of his rage.
Zemeckis is obviously less interested in the interior conflicts of his character than the exterior forces of nature and circumstance that lie in wait. The action sequence depicting Petit's walk is precise; each moment teeter-totters between failure and success. There are delays, delays and more delays, with cowardice, fear and bad timing all becoming variables at different times.
Like the crash sequence in Zemeckis' Flight, the sequence leading up to and depicting Petit's walk mixes multiple narrative speeds and tones. Distress leads to reflection and vice versa. The ending feels like a mini-action thriller with comedic undertones and dramatic sighs of relief. The Walk, which opens on Friday, Oct. 9, proves once again that its director is a master of pacing.
All of this is in service of Petit's unspoken relationship with the Towers themselves and the splendor that comes with sharing their presence. Instead of focusing on the fear of looking down, or alluding to the building's horrific history, Zemeckis sees the walk as an opportunity to scan the horizon from a new perspective. In a city brimming with so much noise, the quiet peacefulness we experience through Petit's eyes is revolutionary. On the wire, remembering doesn't have to be tragic.