Before New York’s World Trade Center and the date 9/11 walked lock-step into eternity, those enormous twin towers were best known for something else entirely, something joyous and a little bit insane.
That would be the 45 minutes that a 24-year-old French aerialist named Philippe Petit spent on Aug. 7, 1974, walking back and forth on a cable stretched 200 feet between looming structures at close to 1,400 feet above the ground.
In today’s high-tech movie world, it is almost inevitable that that day in the clouds, the subject of James Marsh’s altogether splendid Oscar-winning documentary, “Man on Wire,” would, for better and worse, attract the attention of writer-director Robert Zemeckis.
For better and worse because Zemeckis’ films, including “Forrest Gump,” the “Back to the Future” franchise and “The Polar Express,” are often more adventurous technologically than dramatically, and that is definitely the case with “The Walk.”
Based on Petit’s memoir, “To Reach the Clouds,” and co-written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, “The Walk” couldn’t be more pedestrian and earthbound as it slogs through the early parts of the wire walker’s pre-World Trade Center life.
Only in the film’s final section, when it uses the magic of computer-generated imagery to astonishingly re-create Petit’s feat, making you feel as if you are on the wire with him, does “The Walk” begin to soar.
It’s a mark of how dramatically uninvolving the early parts of “The Walk” are that even as fine an actor as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Petit, can’t bring them to life.
For one thing, Gordon-Levitt is hampered by a French accent that initially, at least, is unhappily reminiscent of cartoon character Pepe Le Pew. And he and everyone else has to cope with the film’s gee-whiz, sentimental tone that leads to ideas such as having Petit narrate the film standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
Back we go to Paris, 1973 and Petit’s life as a unicycling mime, wire walker and street performer who steals croissants off tourists’ tables and is always looking for “the perfect place to hang my wire.”
That quest leads him to the beautiful Annie Allix (“The Hundred-Foot Journey’s” Charlotte Le Bon), a street singer who falls under Petit’s spell even though by all appearances he is an arrogant, irritating, not particularly likable fellow.
Standard issue flashbacks show us the beginnings of Petit’s interest in wire walking and introduce us to his first teacher and mentor, Papa Rudy Omankowsky of the famous White Devils aerial troupe (played with altogether too much brio by Ben Kingsley.)
It’s in a dentist’s office, of all places, that Petit has his eureka moment when he sees a magazine story about the soon-to-be-constructed World Trade Center towers. He steals the article, takes it home and draws a pencil line between the buildings. “With this tiny pencil, I sealed my fate,” Petit says with his usual portentousness. “This was the birth of my dream.”
Completely obsessed with the towers, Petit begins to gather people he calls “accomplices” for what he visualizes not as a mere performance but as a spectacular “coup,” something he is sure will be considered “the most audacious work of art.”
Once in New York, Petit investigates the rhythms and systems of the towers as rigorously as the French jewel thieves in Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” case their target, and he gathers more accomplices. These include the French-speaking Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) and the dramatically whiskered Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), the expedition’s inside man.
The closer “The Walk” gets to Petit actually getting on the wire, the more interesting it becomes, and the film’s final 20 minutes, when you see the aerialist going back and forth and back and forth with all of Lower Manhattan unfolding beneath his feet, are alternately mesmerizing, exhilarating and terrifying.
Gordon-Levitt took an intense week of wire walking lessons from Petit himself, and he managed the simpler walking on his own. For trickier maneuvers, however, double Jade Kindar-Martin stepped in, with the filmmakers digitally replacing his face with the actor’s.
Getting the city that appears under Petit’s feet to look real was the work of a small army of digital technicians led by visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie and his Atomic Fiction organization. Baillie’s team of 15 took three months to create the city and the twin towers, followed by five months of work by more than 100 CGI artists to integrate that world with the walking footage.
It would be swell if all of “The Walk” came together as beautifully as the computer effects do, but it would also be churlish not to appreciate what we do have. This film may not talk the talk, but it definitely walks the walk, and for that we are grateful.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rated PG (thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)