I’ve never been more frightened sitting in a movie theater. Now, when I was in my early teens, I sneaked into 1978’s gore-fest “Dawn of the Dead”, with my friend, Leon. Not long after that, it seemed that my entire high school freshman class jumped out of their seats, when young Jason Vorhees emerged from Crystal Lake. We had packed the now-demolished Rialto Theatre in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey–on a Friday the 13th evening. But the most terror I’ve ever experienced during a film was watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt walk out on that high wire near the finale of “The Walk”. Portraying the real life “lunatic”, Phillippe Petit, JGL ventures out above a virtual-reality 12 hundred foot drop, in between the towers of a digitally recreated World Trade Center, during the summer of 1974. You feel like you are out there with him…and it’s heart palpitating.
So, again we have a situation (ever-increasing these days) where the experience of the event, outweighs the quality of what you’re viewing. This kind of stuff is right in director Robert Zemeckis’ wheelhouse (“Forrest Gump”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, the “Back to the Future” trilogy), and “The Walk” is a technical marvel. The execution of the story? Well, for that I’d send you to the superior 2008 documentary “Man on Wire”, which eventually grabbed the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for that year. It uses most of the same storyline, and it’s a far better work. But “The Walk” is good…and the experience is unsurpassable. I urge you to see this in 3D on a giant screen. It’s worth the fear.
We gets early glimpses of Mr. Petit’s young life, attempting to earn a living as a street performer in Paris. He juggles, he mimes, he learns to wire walk–much to the chagrin of his disappointed father. When he spots a picture of the Twin Towers in a magazine while at the dentist–his mission is set. He immediately becomes obsessed with walking between those two buildings. Of course, one mistake, and Philippe will plummet to his death. But all his energy and focus is quickly directed towards accomplishing such a walk. And when Mr. Petit finally arrives in Manhattan, he garners a number of “accomplices” for help in pulling off the “Impossible” task, of launching a wire between the skyscrapers under the cover of darkness, and then making his 140-foot journey when the sun rises that morning. It becomes an effective espionage thriller, as Philippe and his team don disguises, and set forth (illegally), to make this dream a reality.
Ben Kingsley is on board here, as wire walk expert “Papa Rudy”, and he overacts, as usual. There are some decent character performances, from actors such as James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, and Charlotte Le Bon. However, Benedict Samuel hams it up as a hippie stoner. No matter. The versatile Mr. Gordon-Levitt owns the show here. Was it necessary to have the character narrate his own story, perched at times atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty? I don’t know…maybe, maybe not. But the realization of Petit’s incredible “coup” shines over all…and you’ll watch breathlessly, gripping your chair, as Petit makes 8 passes across that chasm. At one point I heard a woman in a row behind me exclaim, “I don’t know if I can take this”, during the recreated “walk”. If that’s not a commentary on the success of the virtual reality, I don’t know what is.