By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The advice any high-wire walker expects to hear is “Don’t look down.”
But for height-hating viewers of the high-wire drama, The Walk, it might be “Don’t look up.”
Why? Because up on the movie screen is The Walk, a playful biographical caper flick about a daredevil-may-care acrobat and performance artist – some would simply describe him as a lunatic — who needed accomplices to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as French street performer Philippe Petit, who in 1974 rounded up a ragtag support team – and the invaluable Ben Kingsley as his Czechoslovakian wire-walking mentor, Papa Rudy — so that he could perform an elaborate, death-defying, illegal “stunt.”
It involved stringing a tightrope across the corners of the Twin Towers, the centerpieces of the World Trace Center – which were part of the Manhattan skyline and the two highest buildings in the world until the devastating tragedy of September 11, 2001 — and walking across the immense void (140 feet) between the not-quite-completed skyscrapers on a cable 110 stories (1,350 feet) in the air.
What he wants to accomplish is to sneak into the towers without authorization, get past the construction workers toiling away so that they barely notice him, and take that stroll across the thin cable without wearing a safety harness.
As to the why, as to daredevil Petit’s motivations, the script leaves them relatively unexplored.
The same material was covered and the same tale told in James March’s “Man on Wire,” which won the 2008 Oscar for Best Documentary. But both approaches — the doc PG-13-rated, this one PG — in telling this story carve out a unique niche and deserve to exist.
The largely underappreciated director, Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away, Death Becomes Her, The Polar Express, Contact, Flight), co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Browne that’s based on Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds.
Zemeckis adopts a light-comedy tone, sometimes downright cartoonish. That means that there are moments when we must take things on faith that we don’t necessarily believe in this true story because, well, seeing is believing. Still, in general, the director, a master of seamlessly incorporating magical special effects into a fluid narrative, does it again.
He puts us on that wire – not, please understand, that we want to be there – with a series of CGI optical illusions that are nothing short of magnificent and will have you watching much of the vertigo-inducing climactic action described by the title through your fingers, if at all.
And although no mention is made of the monstrous and momentous occurrence that would take place at this address 27 years later, changing life forever, it is, of course, never far from our thoughts, as Zemeckis knew that this heartfelt tribute to the towers would be just that when he decided not to reference the future disaster explicitly.
But with Petit — who breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly — and his team doing things in preparation for what he calls his “coup” without arousing suspicion that today would attract all kinds of skeptical and justifiably paranoid attention, this is a film firmly fixed in a pre-9/11 world.
So we’ll climb 3 stars out of 4 for a towering technical achievement from Robert Zemeckis. With a minimum of talk, The Walk walks the walk.