Tightrope legend and coincidental movie critic Karl Wallenda famously declared "life is on the wire, the rest is just waiting." Which pretty much sums up Robert Zemeckis' The Walk, a marvelous technical achievement when the director finally gets around to it.
Zemeckis built his career on amazements, from Roger Rabbit and a DeLorean time machine to Lt. Dan's missing legs to Denzel flying an airliner upside down. The Walk offers him a new challenge, re-creating Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the then-new World Trade Center towers, an audacious piece of extreme performance art.
The event already inspired an Oscar-winning documentary, 2008's Man on Wire, with one disadvantage Zemeckis can overcome: Petit's walk was captured only with still photography. The Walk puts viewers out there on the wire with Petit — rather his stand-in, Joseph Gordon-Levitt — for 16 armrest-clutching minutes, a magnificent fakery blending CGI, models and motion capture, with Dariusz Wolski's camera certain to make acrophobes squirm.
It is a bravura climax, a tah-dah sequence after a movie that at times feels like watching a tightrope walker climb a ladder to his perch. The Walk is 90 plus minutes of anticipation and Gordon-Levitt's so-so impersonation of Petit, a Frenchman with the focus and arrogance of an artiste. Gordon-Levitt's ooh-la-la accent aside, his natural charm makes an easy hero to support.
Narrating his story from the Statue of Liberty's torch, Petit takes us back to the beginning, his first circus when the high wire called to him. Ben Kingsley adds another Euro-mentor to his collection as Rudolf "Papa Rudy" Omankowsky, literally showing Petit the ropes. Standard biopic highs and lows, and The Walk teeters unless Charlotte Le Bon is on screen as Petit's accomplice and love interest Annie Allix.
"Accomplice" is Petit's word, and appropriate since stringing a cable between the Twin Towers and walking it broke numerous laws, requiring a shaggy band of co-conspirators. Man on Wire amusingly played up the impossible mission angle of how anarchy was this accomplished, in the words of the perps.
Zemeckis attempts the same but it feels unavoidably false by comparison; imitated truth no stranger than fiction. Maybe it's Alan Silvestri's too-obvious midsection musical score, all cymbal sizzles and caper bass. Or perhaps it's the twinges of whimsy Zemeckis sprinkles in, softening Petit's character from egomaniac to merely impish. At any rate, The Walk sags in the middle, as movies and tightropes shouldn't.
But, as Wallenda said, life is on the wire and The Walk ultimately proves it. Those vertiginous 16 minutes and the few that follow are among the most exhilarating in recent memory, including a poignant tribute to the towers and a city still standing. The final image is Zemeckis' own high-wire triumph, blending tech and heart into a beautiful thing.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.