Steven Spielberg has described Jaws as a film containing two distinct movies: First, the land-based story of a town stalked by a great white. And second, the saga of three mismatched hunters who take to the sea in pursuit of the monster.
The latest from Robert Zemeckis (Flight) features a similar bifurcation. The Walk is the story of French aerialist Philippe Petit and the high-wire walk he took between the towers of the 110-story World Trade Center on the morning of August 7, 1974. If this sounds like something you've seen before, it is. The 2008 documentary Man on Wire chronicled the same events and earned director James Marsh an Oscar.
That film was narrated by Petit. The Walk is narrated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. It begins inexplicably with the character introducing himself atop the Statue of Liberty beside the great metal torch. The Towers gleam momentarily in the background before the first of the two films-within-the-film commences.
It's the longer of the pair, but not the stronger. Set in Paris, this part of the film offers glimpses of the young street performer doing theoretically charming street performer things such as juggling on a unicycle while wearing a top hat. He is also a mime. Then there's the accent, not The Walk's most special effect.
One day, Petit comes across an article about the Twin Towers, still years from completion. A light bulb all but appears above the elfin teen's head. He's found his calling. Now all he needs are a merry band of accomplices; technical advice from Czech aerialist "Papa" Rudy (Ben Kingsley); lots of practice — his girlfriend, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), jiggles his wire to simulate wind gusts; and a ticket to New York.
Zemeckis condenses years of preparation to speed the second film-within-the-film to its bravura climax. He devotes just enough screen time to the caper aspect of what Petit called the "coup" to impart the playful side of his subject's scheme, then pulls out all the technical stops to re-create the grandeur of that morning's dance in the clouds.
Petit's walk was called "the artistic crime of the century." Where the Hollywood version proves superior to the documentary, ironically, is in its power to give us a version of Petit's magical piece of performance art that is more hyper-real than the real thing — which was captured statically in black and white by a sidekick. This is one film that absolutely must be seen in 3D.
Once considered a likely successor to Spielberg, Zemeckis is today regarded primarily as an effects-obsessed visualist. The obsession works to his benefit in that awe-inspiring final act. Having digitally rebuilt the city with astonishing historical accuracy, he stages Petit's 45 minutes on a metal cable, 1,600 feet above the street, as one of the most lovely, terrifying, suspenseful and joyous sequences in cinema.
And, where one might expect a studio production to goose the sequence for ticket-selling scare tactics, Zemeckis instead exercises surprising restraint. In real life, Petit's rushed setup resulted in the cable hanging loose and low, making the crossing even more precarious. Zemeckis (who wrote the script with Christopher Browne) makes no mention of that fact. The filmmaker employs similar restraint with regard to the Towers themselves; the specter of 9/11 is inescapable, but it is never invoked for easy pathos. Zemeckis says everything there is to be said without a word when he frames the Towers in the final shot. I doubt a film has ever faded to black with greater eloquence.