Robert Zemickis’s dazzling, dizzying biopic The Walk puts us in the shoes of Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who pulled off that insanely daring high-wire walk between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974.
The 24-year-old Petit’s feat was the subject of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2007 documentary Man on Wire; a film whose artful blend of archive footage and stills, dramatic re-enactments and interviews was enough to give vertigo sufferers damp palms and palpitations. Watching Zemickis’s breathtaking Imax 3D recreation of Petit’s stunt, even those with a cool head for heights will break out in cold sweats.
There is also tension and suspense, together with a spirit of jaunty fun, in the build-up to what its protagonist described as ‘the coup’; an audacious heist whose goal was not larceny but the poetry and grace of the act itself.
Played with appropriately puckish playfulness and a bespoke French accent by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Petit first learns the ropes of wire walking from cranky veteran circus artist Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and then assembles a band of misfits and oddballs – including girlfriend Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) – to bring off his highly illegal scheme.
The caper is an engaging mix of steely preparation, brass-necked cheek and plucky improvisation, with the gang posing as architects to gain entry into the World Trade Center – then still under construction – and using a bow and arrow to string up the cable between the towers.
We know what happened next. Not just Petit’s walk, 1,350 feet or 110 stories off the ground, but the terror attacks of 9/11. The knowledge makes The Walk doubly affecting – both as a celebration of Petit’s fearless, life-affirming accomplishment and as an elegy to the Twin Towers themselves.
Certificate PG. Runtime 123 mins. Director Robert Zemickis.