Three spectacles take place on top of one another in The Walk. First, there's the visual of the Twin Towers themselves, 14 years after their tragic demolition. Then there's the phenomenon of Philippe Petit's illegal tightrope walk between their rooftops, 41 years after the stunt. Finally, there's the technological feat that makes possible reviving the other two onscreen.
With a premise so full of potential pitfalls, pulling off a moving film about Petit's walk sounds next to impossible. But for better or worse, director Robert Zemeckis has never been too concerned about what's possible. Pushing the technical limitations of filmmaking and the audience's suspension of disbelief are the twin hallmarks of his career.
For 30 minutes at its apex, his Walk is a graceful, confident and breathless enough balancing act that only an antiquated term can describe it—"movie magic." That amazing half-hour is preceded by some insufferable fluff, though. A painfully silly shot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt standing next to the Statue of Liberty's flame and gesturing toward the Twin Towers starts the film. With a barely passable French accent, Gordon-Levitt's Petit takes us back to a whimsical black-and-white Paris, where freckled kids tip street performers with marbles and pretty girls play twee Leonard Cohen covers on acoustic guitars. This is Zemeckis' optimism through the lens of Petit's own sentimentality, and it's a painful combination.
But in the film's second half, the cartoonish Paris melts into a moody New York City with surprising ease. By Hollywood blockbuster standards, it becomes almost meditative. No one dies in The Walk—the only violent moment is when Petit steps on a nail—but watching one man risk his life (in glorious 3-D) is twice the thrill of the latest Avengers film's apocalyptic action. The events of Sept. 11 are—thankfully—not explicitly referenced in Zemeckis' film, but Petit's plan was every bit as audacious as the attack in 2001. There are parallels, tensions and some temporal displacement between the images we see onscreen and the ones lodged in our brains from that ugly day and the dark years that followed. But the film's greatest feat is letting the Twin Towers stand for something else entirely, if only for a couple of hours.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE it: The Walk is rated PG. It opens Friday at most Portland-area theaters.