There’s no denying the colossal achievement of French funambulist extraordinaire Philippe Petit, who broke records – and the law – when he walked between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Already the subject of James Marsh’s excellent Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, whose title was taken from a police report about the event, this mammoth physical and emotional undertaking is now commemorated by Robert Zemeckis in The Walk, which is also based on Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds.
For those who have seen Man on Wire, this film brings nothing new to the story of Petit’s audacious, undercover World Trade Center stunt, other than huge amounts of vertigo. Indeed, while it demonstrates solid storytelling – albeit with a tendency towards the saccharine, particularly in its romanticising of Petit’s (inherently selfish) dream and eulogising of the towers themselves –The Walk exists primarily to immerse viewers in Petit’s high altitude world via 3D and IMAX technology. In that respect, it is breathtakingly effective, the camera sweeping up the monstrous skyscrapers, following Petit as he dances on the sky and gazes down at the beauty of New York in miniature – a particular view, we are reminded, that has been lost for over a decade.
Although the effects take centre stage and the narrative is somewhat by-the-numbers as it carefully hits the transformative beats of Petit’s journey, the performances are strong. Despite a jarring French accent, Joseph Gordon-Levitt energetically encapsulates Petit’s infectious optimism and self-belief, while an eclectic supporting cast, including Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale and Charlotte Le Bon, all entertain as his unlikely band of allies. The latter is particularly good as Petit’s partner Annie Allix, who provides a voice of cautious reason, even as she unconditionally supports him to achieve his lofty goals.
Indeed, the debate over whether Petit’s walk was foolhardy folly or indelible creative expression has raged for 40 years, but The Walk offers no deep-rooted psychological analysis of his motivations or exploration of his impact. Rather, it’s a visually exhilarating, profusely congratulatory reflection of Zemeckis’ personal belief that Petit is an artist, and someone whose accomplishment deserves nothing but celebration. Whether you agree or not, the film’s undeniable power to weaken the knees should not be underestimated.
UK release: Friday October 9, 2015
This review was originally published at The List