The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Walk

Depending on how you choose to look at it, Philippe Petit was either a visionary or a lunatic. In 1974, he illegally strung a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, then spent the better part of 45 minutes walking back and forth across it. Crowds gathered below to watch his daredevil feat, while authorities tried unsuccessfully to coax him down. This astonishing story was told in James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire, and is told again in Robert Zemeckis's The Walk. The difference is that this dramatic recreation takes advantage of 3D technology to provide a feeling that the viewer is on that high wire, too.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the French Petit, who narrates his own story from atop the Statue of Liberty's torch. Fascinated by wire-walking from childhood, he grows up to become an acrobatic street performer, then gets training in the art of the high wire from a master of the trade (played by Ben Kingsley). Together with a carefully-selected group of accomplices, Petit makes his way to New York City, where he instigates a plan to sneak into the still-under construction WTC after hours, stretch the wire across the buildings, and emerge onto it at dawn the following morning. Every conceivable obstacle gets in his way, but somehow none of them prevent the “coup” (as he calls it) from happening.

For about 75 minutes, The Walk is sort of a caper comedy. Zemeckis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Browne, intentionally stages everything in a very light, whimsical fashion. This is partially done to emphasize the amazing string of ballsy things Petit had to do in order to pull his stunt off, and partially to soften the sadness most of us now feel when we think of the World Trade Center. Even if you know how Petit and his crew snuck in late at night and assembled their gear under the cloak of darkness, The Walk's staging of it maintains a thrill. The story is engrossing because there's really no way this should have worked, yet it did.

The last 40 minutes are devoted to the walk itself. This is where the film really shines. Zemeckis uses the 3D effect to illustrate what it must have been like for Petit to be perched up there, 110 stories in the air. The Walk shifts tone slightly, to something more magical. Petit's dream, wacky as it is, becomes a reality, and we see what it means to him. In one especially powerful moment, he describes in voiceover how everything else faded away when he first put his foot on the wire. Zemeckis visualizes this by having a fog roll in and obscure everything in the frame except that wire. Then, as Petit makes his first steps, the fog quickly dissipates, revealing the full glory of New York City as seen from on high. This is, ultimately, about the glory of a dream fulfilled.

To say that the wire-walking sequence is dizzying would be an understatement. Another shot is taken from Petit's POV as he looks down at his own feet. (If you're afraid of heights, prepare to grip those armrests.) As good as Man on Wire was, it had certain limitations. Petit's walk took place in the days before camcorders and Go Pro cameras. Therefore, only still photos exist. You could see what Petit did in that documentary, but in The Walk - with its digital effects and stunning 3D – you can feel it. The magnitude of this event is so much more palpable and affecting. This is one of those rare cases where the exhibition format is as much a part of the movie's success as the storytelling is. The extra dimension is quite crucial, as the whole thing is designed around giving the audience a vicarious experience.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is probably the perfect actor to portray Philippe Petit. He's always had a certain manic energy, and that gives him great credibility playing a man who won't take no for an answer, even when he should. There was no great psychology with Petit. He walked the wire simply because it called to him; he felt it was his destiny, and there was no deeper reasoning than that. Gordon-Levitt gets that notion across in a manner that is both authentic and touching.

The Walk's supporting characters are pretty thin, but then again, this isn't their story. The movie is about a crazy dreamer who did something incredibly dumb, then found a certain undeniable beauty in it. When the end credits roll, you won't want to attempt something so dangerous. You will, however, understand and appreciate why Philippe Petit did.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Walk is rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.

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