The Walk ***1/2

A breathtaking experience from Robert Zemeckis, who has done as much as anyone to push visual effects forward over the last 30 years. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

In the climactic moments of “The Walk,” I noticed something that’s never happened to me at a movie: My palms were sweating. I was squirming in my seat. Anxious. Uncomfortable. My eyes were glued to the magnificent visuals even though I wanted to look away. Instincts told me to scream “stop!” at the screen, as if the protagonist could hear me tell him to stop walking on a high wire between the World Trade Center Towers. Mind you, all this happened even though I already knew how the movie ends! 

Oh my goodness what a phenomenal experience this is.

“It’s impossible, but I’ll do it,” says Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, mastering a French accent) about walking a high wire between the World Trade Center Towers in the summer of 1974. You have to be a bit of a crazy person to even conceive of this, right? Let alone actually plan it out and execute it. Consider the logistics involved: Each tower is 110 stories high, roughly 1,360 feet above the ground. There’s 140 feet between the towers. Putting aside the audacity/gumption/stupidity/insanity needed to walk on a thin high wire between them, the sheer logistics of setting up the wire are mind-boggling.

Petit has help. His girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) enables his crazy dream – or “coup,” as he calls it – more than anyone. Papa Rudy (not Petit’s real father), played by Ben Kingsley, teaches him how to wire walk, while accomplices Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), Jeff (Cesar Domboy), Barry (Steve Valentine), Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale), Albert (Ben Schwartz) and David (Benedict Samuel) assist in various ways.

The visual effects work (supervised by Kevin Baillie), coupled with Dariusz Wolski’s (“The Martian”) creative cinematography, is breathtaking. But it’s not just the aerial shots above, below and to the side of Petit as he walks the walk, nor the little details such as birds flying below him, that makes it such a heart pounding moment. Director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), working from the real Petit’s book “To Reach The Clouds,” gradually builds to the walk with ample adversity in the planning and getting up to the roof, all of which adds to the overall tension. And once the walk does commence it puts the viewer right next to Petit on that (really) high wire. You consciously know you’re sitting in a theater, but darn if you don’t grab tight to your seat once or twice.

Stunning and tense as the film is over the final 45 minutes, it stumbles a few times while getting there. Petit’s penchant for showmanship and risk is well-established, but his accomplice’s motivations are rarely fleshed out to the point where you can imagine reasonable people enabling this stunt. And then there’s Petit’s narration, which allows him to tell the tale but seems superfluous: Dramatically it would’ve been more effective for the story to play out chronologically – imagine how much more our palms would sweat if Petit wasn’t narrating in hindsight from the torch atop the Statue of Liberty (note the symbolism in that the Statue of Liberty was a gift to America from the French). One reason for the narration may be because the real Philippe Petit very articulately tells the story in “Man On Wire,” a 2008 documentary about this event that won the best documentary Oscar. But we have to believe audience members will go into “The Walk” new to the story, and therefore revealing the ending before it’s necessary does a narrative disservice.

This may seem obvious, but for as strongly as I’m eager to recommend the film it should not be watched by those with acrophobia (fear of heights). Everyone else should see this ASAP on as big a screen as possible, preferably IMAX 3D. And be prepared for your heart to not stop racing until 15 minutes after it’s over.

Did you know?
***Spoiler warning*** In total Petit was on the wire for 45 minutes and made eight passes between the towers.

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