‘The Walk’ Has High Spirits

New Zemeckis Film Celebrates Philippe Petit’s Dream Fulfillment

<b>MAN ON WIRE:</b> Joseph Gordon-Levitt (right) plays tight-rope walker Philippe Petit in <i>The Walk</i>.

The Walk is Robert Zemeckis’s new movie about French tightrope walker Philippe Petit (played by a very charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who in 1974 walked between the two Twin Towers on a high wire with the assistance of a team of collaborators. Painterly and brimming with joie de vivre, The Walk is a celebration of Petit’s grand performance and of grandiose dreams generally. In a nod toward the whimsical, boundary-defying Frenchman and the artful spirit of his country, the film’s heart is light, its spirit soaring, and its color palette dreamy and diffuse.

“All artists are anarchists, in some way,” says Petit’s photographer friend, Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), and, indeed, for a major motion picture, this one boasts an unusually artful sheen. The visuals are reminiscent of Zemeckis’s picture-book The Polar Express in their softness and polarity, albeit in a more comforting and less nightmarishly cuddly, uncanny-valley style. For those who fear the three-dimensional cinematography, it is mostly used to suggest an almost cell-shaded spatial depth between people and scenes, though I suppose those with vertigo or fear of heights may experience some nauseating personal dolly zoom of their own. I maintained my composure, despite being motion-sickness prone; the disorienting effects of this film are overstated.

The film falls into two halves, with the first following Petit from childhood dreamer to adult daredevil and the second focusing solely on the tense moments of his coup. As you watch Gordon-Levitt pace deftly back and forth on the high wire, the movie really does instill a sense of inspiration. Those who remember the 2008 documentary Man on Wire may be somewhat surprised by the uniformly happy tone of the film, as it does not explore the ways in which Petit’s obsession corroded his closest relationships.

But as James Marsh withheld any hint of future terrorist disasters from his documentary, Zemeckis similarly does not obscure the beauty of Petit’s performance with the less-charismatic sides of his ambition. The Walk is meant to celebrate, and it does — not just the Towers (even French dreams, it turns out, are American), but the fulfillment of impossible dreams.

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