Reel To Reel: The Walk
Going Rate: Worth full price admission (and in IMAX 3D)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley
Rated: PG (but really more of a hard G)
Red Flags: mild language, scarily realistic scenes of heightened peril (Note: this may not be for people with vertigo or fear of high places)
In all the tributes following the 9/11 attacks, I am amazed I never heard about Philippe Petite's stunning walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It's likely many people didn't hear about it when it happened on August 7, 1974. News of Petit's walk was buried in the Watergate crisis; President Nixon would announce his resignation one day later. Still, the networks carved out some time for it.
The documentary Man On Wire chronicles Petit's walk, but not to the dizzying, dazzling degree as director Robert Zemeckis, whose biggest challenge was recreating two buildings that aren't there anymore. The film uses a mixture of CGI and reconstructions of the WTC's top floors. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt not only learned to walk on a wire but speak fluent French, and he envelops the role of Petit completely as a creatively crazy Parisian street performer who's looking for the next place to "hang my wire."
Petit breaks the fourth wall, narrating from the torch platform of the Statue of Liberty, twin towers over his shoulder. He shows us how an emergency trip to the dentist led him to a magazine chronicling the construction of the twin towers, which in the finishing phase at the time of his stunt. He immediately knows he wants to make a walk between them, something he calls "the coup."
Here's where The Walk becomes a caper film in which nobody is robbed, killed or blown up. Petit's enthusiastic sense of adventure tinged with anarchy attracts a crew, including a photographer, a math wizard who's afraid of heights, an electronics-store hustle artist, an inside man at the WTC, and yes, a girl -- a fellow street performer named Annie (Le Bon). Petit breezes us through the plotting and planning phases, where he learns as much about the towers as he can, taking countless photographs and even posing as a reporter to gather crucial information. The team develops an intricate scheme for getting up to the top of the towers over a period of more than 12 hours, running the wire across (with the help of a bow and arrow) and stabilizing it. Petit's co-conspirators must also deal with his borderline insanity and compulsions as a self-proclaimed artist and not some mere performer. His purity of intentions brings him into conflict with his mentor, Papa Rudy (Kingsley), a circus high-wire guru who instructs Philipe in the methods and secrets.
The payoff is huge. Petit's multiple walks across the wire are frighteningly realistic. We know it's a film, and we know Petit survives it, but the seamless CGI enhanced by 3D and the camera which floats around him put you up there with him. Don't eat a big lunch. This is a film you feel in the gut when you hold your breath and contemplate the extreme danger of this stunt.
Petit never directly explains to us why he chose the Twin Towers, but somehow we understand it through his eccentric personality. I also liked how the film dodged shoving a romantic subplot between Petit and Annie down our necks. This movie is tight and focused, just like the man and his wire.
Another thing you won't see: a direct reference to the 9/11 attacks. A tribute is there, however, and you'll know it when you see it.