The “walk” in question is Philippe Petit’s aerial strolls, eight of them in fact, between the towers of the almost-completed and partially occupied World Trade Center in August 1974. New York City and indeed the world was buzzing about this stunt, or “coup” as the Frenchman called it, for weeks.
Forty years ago no one could have made much of a movie about this because unlike the extraordinarily daring and brave act itself, any movie version would look downright fake. James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, “Man on Wire,” relied upon the vintage footage of the feat plus recreations with actors to tell the tale.
But given today’s technology and a filmmaker like Robert Zemeckis, who is determined to smash any barriers still existing in cinema magic — his company is aptly named ImageMovers — “The Walk” is pure magic.
Old-time cinematographers had a motto, a paraphrase of Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand and I will photograph the world.” Today a cinematographer has that place to stand. So for now “The Walk” will more than do as a monument to the magnificent realization of the cinematographers’ dream.
No, the world is not photographed by Zemeckis and his stalwart cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski. Rather a seemingly impossible walk by a human being out over a “void,” out over an empty space between two huge towers in the Manhattan sky, is taken in by a movie in all its incredible wonder.
The point of view is nowhere exactly. Shown from every possible angle — above, below, from Petit’s eyes and then looking into those eyes — the movie assumes the point of view of — what? The birds or perhaps it’s the gods?
It doesn’t matter what the story is like that surrounds this dazzling sequence but, in fact, it’s a rather jolly true-life comedy about a highly improbable Frenchman and his motley crew of accomplices.
The screenplay by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, based on Philippe Petit’s book, “To Reach the Clouds,” occupies its time before “the walk” with his early life as a magician and street performer in Paris and training with Papa Rudy, a circus tightrope walker, possibly Czech but vague about his origins.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Petit with a cheerful nonchalance wrapped up in obsessive passion. The performances has its own lilt, its own effervescence like light tiny bubbles in champagne. He rides his unicycle in Parisian streets with the easy gaiety of a true performer. He is always “on.”
Zemeckis has Petit narrate his incredible odyssey, speaking directly to the audience in fluent, French-accented English from atop the torch in the Statue of Liberty (she is of course French as well) with its view of the twin towers rising above Manhattan’s skyline.
Petit is clear about his destiny — to walk high-wires and then to walk between the Twin Towers — so you can either join him or leave. He charms fellow street performer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, a French-Canadian actress with a wispy beauty) into being his girlfriend and then his first accomplice.
Ben Kingsley plays Papa Rudy, a taskmaster whose sternness masks his enthusiasm for his new unusual pupil. James Badge Dale is Jean-Pierre or JP, a fast-talking New Yorker who turns out to be French and a key liaison between the transplanted French and the Yankee world.
Clément Sibony’s photographer and César Domboy’s math whiz terrified of heights are friends who come over from France to help engineer the difficult task of acquiring equipment, sneaking it into a public building and rigging the cables in the night hours before dawn. Steve Valentine plays an insurance broker who actually works in an office high up in one of the towers.
The build-up to the walk contains sufficient tension and character-revealing segments to keep one involved in the enterprise before getting to the big moment. Real life wrote an interesting enough scenario too including a guy who shows up on the roof where Petit is about to make history, looks around, says “hi,” then disappears never to be seen again.
In actually the walk itself lasted about 45 minutes, much longer than in the movie, as Petit, once accustomed to the “void” and seeing NYPD on both rooftops ready to snatch him away from glory, began to dance, kneel and even lie down on the wire to entertain slack-mouthed New Yorkers below.
Zemeckis wisely chooses less than half that time to capture the madness with his actor and audience suspended up in the air. The brilliance of Naomi Shohan’s sets — the lobby of the World Trade Center and the two rooftops — along with the digital recreation of 1974 downtown New York City as fog swirls between the towers makes sure you-are-there.
There is a small coda following the walk as the movie wraps up a subplot or two (and in the case of Annie not very well). Then comes the most touching moment.
Petit has finished his story and the shot focuses on the World Trade Center towers themselves. Slowly all else fades leaving only the towers, a final salute to the two buildings and the people within them whom we all so sorely miss.
It’s a splendid final note to a movie brimming with optimism and good feelings and a joyous tribute to the twin towers’ memory, not a sad one.
Opens: October 9, 2015 (TriStar Pictures)
Production companies: TriStar Pictures presents in association with LStar Capital an ImageMovers production
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Benedict Samuel, Ben Schwartz. Steve Valentine
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne
Based on a book by: Philippe Petit
Producers: Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke
Executive producers: Cherylanne Martin, Jacqueline Levine, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb
Music: Alan Silvestri
Visual effects supervisor: Kevin Baillie
Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll
PG rating, 123 minutes.