Film and TV

Zemeckis's The Walk Finds Joy and Awe in the Greatest of Voids

Those of us who have been waiting forever for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make a musical now have the next best thing: In Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, this breezy Puck of an actor plays high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who walked the space between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974. In it, Gordon-Levitt moves like a natural: When his Petit finally gets to take that famous aerial stroll — picking his way along that impossibly narrow cable in soft, barely there leather slippers that wouldn’t snap a twig in the forest — he’s both fawn and faun, sure of his place in nature and the universe. The Walk, in its last half, at least, is a dazzling piece of work, particularly in 3-D; even so, its most luminous effect is an actor.

The first half — covering Petit’s early years in Paris as a wirewalker-in-training and detailing his crazy-passionate plan to traverse the air between the twin towers, which were still under construction at the time — is beleaguered by whimsy, however, so let’s get that part over with: Petit unicycling through Paris! Petit juggling! Petit learning the highs and lows of wirewalking from Ben Kingsley’s Czech-émigré acrobat, Papa Rudy! Petit meeting Annie, the cutie-pie street singer who will become his girlfriend! (She’s played by Charlotte Le Bon.) Even during the snoozy parts, Zemeckis uses 3-D effects cleverly: At home in Paris, Petit, working out what he would come to call “le coup,” balances a little paper man on a string stretched between two wine bottles. The image pops in front of us, though the earnest delight, and undiluted optimism, on Gordon-Levitt’s face is the real pleasure.

Yet all of that is just preamble to the great part of The Walk, which begins when Petit arrives in New York with a three-person crew: Clément Sibony’s dashing and passionate photographer Jean-Louis, César Domboy’s charming acrophobic Jean-François, and loyal girlfriend Annie. Stateside, Petit picks up a few other accomplices, most notably James Badge Dale’s swaggering, French-speaking J.P., and proceeds to fine-tune his plan, which involves figuring out a way to run a cable between the towers without being detected by police or building officials.

Zemeckis’s approach is admittedly a little weird in places: The Walk is framed by sequences in which Gordon-Levitt’s Petit, perched up high on the Statue of Liberty, right near the torch and with the twin towers gleaming in the background, addresses the camera directly in ze kind of French accent that Americans love to make fun of. Gordon-Levitt is spry and casual enough to make it work, but it’s still a little corny. But if any director knows his way around 3-D, it’s Zemeckis: He has been working out the kinks in this mode of filmmaking for years, and even if he had to torture us with The Polar Express in the process, The Walk (almost) makes up for it.

Zemeckis ends the film with an elegy to the World Trade Center that some will find corny. We’ve all seen enough hypersentimental twin-tower images, often flanked by soft-focus American-flag imagery, to last eleven lifetimes. In New York, their absence is actually an unerasable presence, no matter how many new skyscrapers spring up around their airspace. When Gordon-Levitt’s Petit speaks of them, it’s with the tenderness you’d use in reflecting on a lost lover. One little French guy’s dream of stringing a cable between these two boxy, unloved wonders and — good God! — walking it is part of what the twin towers were, and are. They’re ghost buildings, dissolved into the very air of New York. We still breathe it in.
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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.