Drama: A 1970s era daredevil attempts to walk across a cable suspended between the two World Trade Center towers.
It's the 1970s and Philippe Petit (JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT) is a French street performer who learned much of his juggling and high-wire act skills from veteran circus performer, Papa Rudy (BEN KINGSLEY). Now in Paris, Philippe meets street performer guitarist Annie Allix (CHARLOTTE LE BON) and the two quickly become an item, as well as anarchistic photographer Jean-Louis (CLEMENT SIBONY) who likes Philippe's style and bravado. After he helps Philippe walk a hire-wire suspended between the two towers of Notre Dame, they set their sights on a similar but far more dangerous and audacious stunt. And that would be walking a high-wire between the recently constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
With an unlikely accomplice in the form of Jean-Francois, a.k.a. "Jeff" (CESAR DOMBOY), a math teacher who barely speaks English and is deathly afraid of heights, they begin scoping out the site and what they'll need to do to pull off the illegal stunt. They nearly blow it when New York electronic salesman Jean-Pierre, a.k.a. "J.P." (JAMES BADGE DALE), understands the French they're speaking about not wanting cops to overhear their communication, but rather than turn them in, he joins the team. As does insurance broker Barry Greenhouse (STEVE VALENTINE) who recognizes Philippe from the Notre Dame stunt and just so happens to work in one of the towers. He helps them add Albert (BEN SCHWARTZ) and stoner David (BENEDICT SAMUEL) to the team, although Jean-Louis questions their usefulness.
As the team prepares for the stunt -- that involves accessing the roofs of both towers, getting and securing a high-wire line between them and not being detected by anyone -- they must contend with various obstacles that threaten to derail their plan.
OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Here's the thing about documentaries. While they clearly serve a purpose in highlighting some important or at least just plain interesting story, person or event, and sometimes are better than fictional movies, they're rarely seen en masse by the masses.
Aside from Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," the nature flick "March of the Penguins" and the concert pic "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," none have made more than $35 million at the domestic box office. In fact, it's probably a safe bet that the international take for this summer's "Jurassic World" probably exceeds the combined box office numbers for every documentary ever produced. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, it's just the way it is.
Accordingly, certain influential movie folks occasionally want a broader audience to experience the story behind certain documentaries. Offerings such as "The Fighter," "The Sessions" and "Milk" come to mind as examples of "based on a true story" films that first saw the light of a movie projector in the form of a documentary.
And now along comes "The Walk," a drama about French daredevil Philippe Petit who somehow managed to string a cable (a feat in itself) between the now forever gone twin towers of the World Trade Center and then walk across that from one to the other, high rope style. That feat was documented in "Man on Wire," James Marsh's Oscar-winning 2008 documentary, a film that -- I have to admit -- I've never seen (I know, I know).
As directed by Robert Zemeckis (the visionary filmmaker behind hits such as "Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away") who works from a script he penned with Christopher Browne (in their adaptation of Pettit's book ""To Reach the Clouds"), the story begins with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, complete with a believable enough French accent) directly addressing the camera from atop the torch in the Statue of Liberty.
Accordingly, we immediately know he's going to succeed at his endeavor (as this is all post-walk narrative), a storytelling tactic that, on the surface, would seem to rob the flick of some degree (or more) of suspense.
Granted, I doubt many viewers -- even if unaware of the true story -- would assume the protagonist (especially as played by the always engaging actor) is going to fall to his death (especially in a PG-rated film, although I have no idea how the flick didn't get pegged with a PG-13, especially considering the comical view of Gordon-Levitt's full rear nudity or the view of a minor character with what has to be a joint in his hand while acting high).
So, we get some flashback scenes of our daredevil back in France, getting lessons from a wily old circus pro (Ben Kingsley), falling for a street performer guitarist (Charlotte Le Bon) and finding a fellow artist as anarchist in a photographer (Clement Sibony) who will not only document the walk on film, but will also become the protagonist's main setup accomplice. They're eventually joined by a small crew of unlikely assistants (including Cesar Domboy as a math teacher who's deathly afraid of heights) and then set out to scope out the site, set up the rigging, and do the deed, so to speak.
Zemeckis infuses much of that earlier material with a sense of whimsy, but then starts delivering the sweaty palm material once the crew is atop one of the towers. Utilizing the spot-on and seamless work of his digital effects crew to put Gordon-Levitt atop the now long-gone twin towers, the director delivers sequences that literally had me wiping off my hands to keep them (and my notepad) dry. The final thirty minutes or so is truly gripping, edge of your seat material (although I imagine many a viewer will be wedged as far back as they can get if seeing this in the immensity and clarity of an IMAX 3D screen).
It's also a loving tribute to the former towers, with shot after shot of them (looking up at them, down the 100-plus stories and across from the top) likely to induce a sense of melancholy in those who still can't believe they're gone. And the closing shot, which fades out on those towers, affected me on an emotional level I wasn't expecting.
I wish the rest of the film had the same effect. Mind you, none of it's bad, but considering the light and whimsical approach before the white knuckle material begins, I was sort of hoping the scenes and sequences of the team prepping for the job would take on an "Ocean's Eleven" slick vibe. It's close, but not quite there, while we never really get to know what makes the protagonist tick, at least beyond what he tells us via his narration that occasionally pops up as temporal interludes.
So, in the end, it's a good but not great film, although the third act is something to see and concludes with a heartfelt emotional wallop. For that, "The Walk" scores a 6.5 out of 10 rating.