Robert Zemeckis’s best films have always celebrated pop culture’s crackpot dreamers, from time-traveling scientists (Back to the Future) to youth-obsessed actresses (Death Becomes Her) and starry-eyed extraterrestrial researchers (Contact). Like so many of his characters, Zemeckis is a showman, a technical magician, and his new film—based on the real-life adventures of wire-walker Philippe Petit—opens in full-tilt fabulist abstraction. Perched atop a computer-generated Statue of Liberty like he’s about to reenact Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” clip, a turtle-necked, French-accented Joseph Gordon-Levitt regales the audience with the tale of how he walked a wire suspended between New York’s World Trade Center in 1974.
It’s a bold and potentially disastrous framing device, but Zemeckis knows that we know the story, and opts for transforming fact into celebratory myth. Already the subject of James Marsh’s engaging but not wholly flattering 2008 doco Man on Wire, Petit has had his rougher edges smoothed down here, the folk hero distilled to his idealistic essence. We’re introduced to Petit the fanciful dreamer, entertaining Parisian street crowds amidst lavish, digitally recreated ’60s street scenes, a juggling, tightrope-straddling kid with a twinkle in his eye who literally runs off to join the circus to be mentored by a comically cranky old acrobat (Ben Kingsley, gnawing on the finest Eastern European ham.) As played by Gordon-Levitt, Petit is incapable of being anything other than likeable, even when he’s having an egocentric breakdown. The actor even devotes himself to performing many of his early scenes in French, and he’s not half-bad, either.
Since The Walk has to spend much of its first Euro-set hour getting to the big event, Gordon-Levitt’s cheerfully naff narration actually helps keep things lively in the absence of much in the way of narrative drama. There are training montages, cheesy “a-ha!” moments and a sweet romance between Petit and fellow street performer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), while Zemeckis luxuriates in all the hyper-period detail state-of-the-art digital wizardry can buy. This is the kind of movie-movie with magnificently artificial French vistas that would shame Disneyland, yé-yé pop covers of what sounds like the entire Forrest Gump soundtrack, and endearing scenes of Petit and his cohorts building makeshift scale models of the WTC that recall Doc Brown and Marty McFly’s miniature clock tower jiggery. Zemeckis is firmly on his favorite terrain here, and frankly, it’s good to have him back.
Once The Walk arrives in Manhattan—scored to Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” bless—the film ascends into one of the most tense and exhilarating 45 minutes or so of filmmaking this year. Here, Zemeckis isn’t so much interested in interrogating the psychology of Petit as he is allowing the spectacle to define his character, which is something of an analog for his own filmmaking. “I must do it because it has never been done,” is as close to an explanation that Petit offers of his quest to walk between the towers, “and yes, I am mad.” Similarly, while Petit and his crew refer to the walk as a “coup” and talk fleetingly of revolution, the film has little investment in socio-political context, despite the odd throwaway detail: “This dude is righteous,” exclaims a black onlooker as Petit hangs precariously hundreds of feet above him, invoking a vague solidarity.
But The Walk is foremost a tribute to mad dreams and the spectacle of a breathlessly executed show, and on that front it delivers handsomely. It’s a testament to Zemeckis’ deft synthesis of technical and storytelling skills that he can sustain an extended final act in which we know the outcome and still induce dread, suspense and elation in his audience. Oh, and lest we forget: super-queasy vertigo. While 3-D has long become a tired gimmick, The Walk, like Godard’s Goodbye to Language last year, is the rare film to use the technique to forceful physical effect. I’ve sat through countless 3-D movies and this is the first time I can remember physically flinching (like a fool, in a media screening) as objects (snapped cables, circus poles, dropped objects) plummeted toward the screen. One such image, a cable suspended threateningly like a noose between the towers, is one of the year’s great compositions. The digital recreations of New York’s now-phantom landmarks are legitimately breathtaking, Zemeckis’ intuitive sense of camera placement conspiring with Dariusz Wolski’s evocative photography to create a heightened, dream-like memory of Manhattan—the kind that permits absurd flourishes like Petit assuming a Christ-like pose on the wire in golden silhouette.
Of course, the chilly spectre in the show is the World Trade Center itself, haunting on screen as merely a fledgling structure on the verge of completion, and freighted with the knowledge that it’s now just another image created in a toolbox for digital projection. There’s a moment where Petit is rigging up his wires on the roof and a solitary man—dressed like a nondescript investment banker—appears without explanation, looking around and over the edge without saying a word like some ghost of nightmare Christmas future. But heavy-handed sentiment is surprisingly absent from the film, with only a simple, elegant final line hinting at all the audience needs to be reminded about the towers’ fateful horizon. The Walk isn’t the film to dwell on that, happy to instead attempt to preserve an ephemeral moment in the prism of popular history. “Perhaps you’ve brought them to life, given them soul,” someone tells Petit about the Twin Towers after he’s completed his walk. It’s a corny, ridiculous remark, but in the context of such well crafted, idealistic entertainment, one that’s strangely acceptable—even affecting.