Expect the worst from the first half of The Walk. That’s the part before high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hits New York in 1974 and strings up a wire between the World Trade Center towers. Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis kills time with curdled whimsy as Gordon-Levitt, speaking in zee outrageous French accent, shows us Petit’s early years as a Paris street magician, student of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and lover of Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). But then, oh, baby, does this movie fly.
We’re off from the first suspenseful minute as Petit and his accomplices sneak into the towers (prepare to choke up at the digital re-creation), set up shop and pull off the most lyrical and illicit piece of performance art in, like, ever. Sure, James Marsh’s striking 2008 documentary Man on Wire traveled the same road. But Zemeckis, a technical virtuoso, does it in 3D IMAX. With the help of a killer FX team and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, The Walk puts us up there 1,360 feet above the ground so we can almost feel the swirling air, the tautness of the wire and the rush of exhilaration.
Well, we could if Zemeckis didn’t pile on the voice-over telling us exactly what Petit is thinking. Ignore the tell and focus on the show, spectacular in every sense. The wondrous Gordon-Levitt has always been an actor of natural acrobatic finesse. Here, with lessons from Petit himself, he finds the poetic joy in performing that honors what the movie is about, a man who truly believes art can give you wings.