The Walk: A stroll worth taking
3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Go ahead, if you dare: look down. Gaze through the clouds and the 1,350 feet of air separating you and the thousands of onlookers below.
And you can bet they are looking at you, too, with their eyes wide and mouths agape as you take a 131-foot stroll on a wire less than an inch thick that’s stretched tightly from the roofs of the 110-story Twin Towers.
Go ahead, if you dare: look up, at the clouds beginning to darken as thunder rolls while police officers on both rooftops are ordering — begging, pleading — you to call it a day and end a 45-minute balancing act that will end with you in somebody’s custody, be it the police or the coroner.
You’re alone atop the earth, free from the hustle and bustle of the Manhattan streets. It’s just you, your wire and your willingness to prove the impossible possible.
Go head, if you dare: pretend you’re Philippe Petit, dressed in black slippers, a black v-neck sweater and black pants, as the sun spreads its first rays on Aug. 7, 1974 and you step onto a wire and into history.
Scared? Don’t be — nothing is going to happen to you. You’re sitting in the safe confines of your movie theater seat, watching The Walk, which opens today and lets you witness a feat in a way you’ll want to thank director Robert Zemeckis when the screen fades to black.
Zemeckis’ cinematic re-creation of Petit’s time in the sky through a captivating 3D, all-angles view delivers a climatic scene that makes moviegoers cling to their armrests and gives them no choice but to break a cardinal rule of wire walking: don’t look down.
Petit’s “coup,” which is exactly what he called it, is like none other ever shown on the big screen. It’s the culmination of his nearly decade-long journey that began with the Frenchman first seeing the Twin Towers in a magazine and ended with him being the only man who has lived to tell about walking on a wire between the two iconic skyscrapers.
Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Petit, a Paris street performer who went from being a mime to delivering a high-wire act that left everybody speechless.
But Zemeckis and Gordon-Leavitt, not to mention some of the best computer-generated imagery ever seen, tell Petit’s story superbly in this fast-paced, two-hour film. Gordon-Leavitt doesn’t look like the orange-haired, blue-eyed Petit, but he’s believable with his accent and a svelte body that enables him to do what others only dream of.
Petit, who was 24 when he walked into the great unknown, banished the word “death” from his vocabulary as he prepared to walk the wire he and his friends — “accomplices” in his words — illegally hung between Twin Towers that dwarfed lower Manhattan until the tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I know those towers better than anybody in the world. I studied them for nine years, legally and illegally, before and after my walk. That’s what I called it, ‘my walk,’ ” Petit told Sports Illustrated shortly after the terrorist attack that felled the Twin Towers, claiming 2,600 innocent lives in the process. “It was nine years from the moment I got the idea to the moment I illegally strung a cable between the twin giants. In that time I studied, I practices — and I dreamed.”
Gordon-Leavitt’s so good in The Walk you’ll forget his movie career has been filled with more misses than hits. He narrates the story, which has some subtitles, from atop the Statue of Liberty. His honest approach, in which he includes details of his mischievous upbringing, makes the audience cheer for a guy who until that fateful day hadn’t accomplished very much, save for him illegally wire-walking between Notre Dame Cathedral’s two towers in Paris in 1971.
Gordon-Leavitt is complemented well by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, who plays a Czech circus legend who Petit paid to learn everything about walking the wire; Charlotte Le Bon, who plays Petit’s girlfriend, Annie; and Petit’s friends — played by César Domboy, Clement Sibony, Ben Schwartz and James Badge Dale.
But Zemeckis, who co-wrote the film with Christopher Browne, is the star. He’s the one who brings the story to life through a use of cinematography that makes the film’s last 20 minutes worth the price of admission alone.
“I wanted to offer Manhattan, America and the world an image of the impossible,” Petit told Sports Illustrated in 2001. “I wanted to make a statement to the move mountains and to show that the impossible does not exist.”
And then there are the towers. Just seeing the Trade Center towers, which weren’t finished when Petit walked on the wire, serve as a reminder to a different time in America’s past, one that was shattered by terrorism. It would be easier to follow in Petit’s footsteps than not reflect on 9/11 while watching The Walk, as so much of the movie is spent inside two symbolic structures that are no longer standing.
“I felt with the collapse of the Twin Towers,” he said, “like I had lost my child.”
Petit, now 66 and having resided in the U.S. since he danced in the sky, perhaps has never gotten credit for what he accomplished, even if his walk was featured in the 2008 film Man on a Wire and in numerous books and short films.
Maybe now, after spending decades of walking where very few even dream of setting foot, Petit and his legacy will cemented in its lofty place, for everyone to see.
Note: The Walk is rated PG for mild language.
Jon Gallo is an award-winning journalist and editor with 19 years of experience, including stints as a staff writer at The Washington Post and sports editor at The Baltimore Examiner. He also believes the government should declare federal holidays in honor of the following: the Round of 64 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; the Friday of the Sweet 16; the Monday after the Super Bowl; and of course, the day after the release of the latest Madden NFL video game.