A walk to remember: Zemeckis baths tightrope stunt in beauty


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By Ian Flanagan / Staff Writer

If you didn’t see enough  of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 2008’s documentary “Man on Wire,” Petit gets the grand-scale cinematic treatment  he deserves in “The Walk.”

For someone who spends so much effort on his visual creation with only middling box office results — i.e., “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” — director Robert Zemeckis  finally let modern technology elevate the pleasures of the film experience, rather than distract from them.

Though popularity of 3-D films has long overstayed its welcome, the film’s climactic sequence is as exhilarating as one would hope — and in IMAX 3-D it’s easy to become immersed in the beauty and dread of Petit’s incredible artistic stunt.

“The Walk” as a whole is a thrilling crowd-pleaser. And though the film’s buoyancy and wide-eyed optimism can sometimes border on overplayed or overstated, it’s hard not to be ultimately won over by the sincerity of both Gordon-Levitt’s sprightly, theatrical central performance and Zemeckis’ smooth, visually accomplished direction.

Gordon-Levitt, under convincing makeup work — though he remained far prettier than the real Petit — plays to all of his strengths of showmanship and likability as the street performer turned daring tightrope auteur.

In his early years, Petit learned his skill from his mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who would advise him throughout his first public performances to his most ludicrous attempts. In his younger years in Europe, Petit met Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who would become both his romantic partner and safety net — along with other acquaintances — in his more elaborate and less legal performances, such as walking on the Notre Dame Cathedral.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the film’s cuteness and fluff — from the Hollywood-ization of the events to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s narration from atop the Statue of Liberty. But what might have been a cynical cash grab capitalizing on another “unbelievable” true story is instead a deeply genuine retelling of Petit’s tale, with Zemeckis drawing out all of the story’s ripest details.

Gordon-Levitt reportedly trained with Petit in order to learn how to walk the tightrope, and his manifestation of the wildly ambitious and sometimes infuriatingly obsessive performer is a heartfelt portrait — and furthermore, some fine casting.

Yet beyond how well the film translates Petit’s life and dreams, “The Walk” is an enormously entertaining film in its own right, from its endlessly engaging cinematography to the masterfully mounted tension of its second half. The palm-sweating adrenaline of the titular sequence alone is worth the price of a ticket.

If there’s one way this film improves on “Man on Wire,” it is that it puts the viewer in Petit’s place, and what was once only imagined by everyone else can now be lived. As a biopic or as a true-life thriller, “The Walk” is altogether a spectacular and passionately constructed film.