In 1974, a French tightrope artist named Philippe Petit illegally strung a wire between the newly-completed twin towers of the World Trade Center, then walked across it. I never even heard of this story until years after September 11, 2001, when Petit became the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Presumably, that film's makers figured that 2008 was long enough after 9/11 so that their fun little doc wouldn't bum audiences out, but soon enough to still strike a sentimental chord. (Shrewd bet: it won an Oscar.)
Seven years later, with yet more distance and nostalgia, Petit's stunt gets the full-on Hollywood treatment with The Walk.
As I write this review, the film has already flopped. I guess a lot of moviegoers have a fear of heights, little assuaged by the thought of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Petit, speaking with a strong French accent, and often into the camera (albeit in cutaway narration scenes). And for some, an upbeat caper movie about the Twin Towers is still too soon.
Too bad, because The Walk is good fun.
The real Petit is an inveterate showman, so the direct-address scenes worked for me. (And since my new short 20 Matches has an actress doing the same thing, I'd be a hypocrite if I said otherwise.) Gordon-Levitt's hyper, enthusiastic performance also works, because that's precisely who Petit is: a busker, a Parisian, a nut.
Most important, Robert Zemeckis still knows how to stage good suspense; the heist-like buildup to the walk, as Petit and his accomplices break into the World Trade Center, is as tense as the walk itself. And what a nice surprise to see my old Foreign Correspondents star Steve Valentine show up as Petit's inside man at the WTC.
The film has two small issues, however:
First, Petit is constantly interrupting his French-speaking cohorts by saying "No! We must speek Eenglish weeth each other! We must practeece!" Maybe that's what actually happened, but the script seems like it's trying too hard to justify the English dialogue.
Second, since the World Trade Center doesn't exist anymore, I couldn't forget that Gordon-Levitt was walking between two entirely computer-fabricated buildings. My palms still sweat, thanks to Zemeckis' taut direction, but it's not as potent as watching Tom Cruise clamber along the very real Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.
Don't let any of that put you off. This is satisfying, old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. Zemeckis' longtime composer Alan Silvestri delivers a nifty, jazzy score, and the cast is filled with appealing unknowns. Get over your acrophobia and see The Walk in theaters. It just won't be the same on TV.