The Walk is many things—a docudrama, a caper film, an action-adventure spectacular—but one thing it isn't is redundant. When a Hollywood filmmaker like Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Flight, the execrable Forrest Gump) revisits historical events, like French wire-walker Philippe Petit's stroll between the World Trade Center towers, that already appeared in a documentary (James Marsh's Oscar-winning Man on Wire), it's understandable to question why the veteran director couldn't come up with an idea of his own. It's just as understandable to expect him to smooth out a story told with more wrinkles elsewhere, except things aren't quite that simple.
Granted, the movie doesn't get off to the most promising start as Petit makes his introduction from atop the Statue of Liberty with the Manhattan skyline, circa 1974, arrayed behind him. He looks directly at the camera—at us—and narrates by way of his 2002 memoir To Reach the Clouds. Outfitted with a light-brown wig and dark-blue contact lenses, Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks more like one of Zemeckis's much maligned motion-capture characters than a real person. Then there's the actor's accent. To his credit, he commits like a man possessed, but he never fully convinces. Fortunately, that becomes less of a distraction as Zemeckis cranks up the gears of his film machine.
First, he flashes back to Petit's childhood, during which the provincial lad discovers tightrope walking. Expecting more from their son than being an acrobat, his parents kick him out. But he thrives on the streets, where Parisians stuff his hat with francs and he meets folk singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who becomes his girlfriend, and Czechoslovakian funambulist Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who becomes his mentor.
Unlike Tom Hanks's sweet and simple Forrest Gump, Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as the cocky motherfucker he surely was—it takes balls of steel to think you can walk between two 110-story towers without a net—but Papa Rudy teaches him to respect his audience. Without them, there's no show. At this point, it becomes clear that Zemeckis is Papa Rudy. He doesn't simply aim to tell a story that's been told before, he wants to put us in Petit's toe shoes in a way a documentary never could. Faced with scant footage depicting the walk, Marsh relied on shadowy reenactments in which actors depicted Petit and his accomplices like a gang of thieves in a French heist picture.
So Man on Wire was already a narrative feature of sorts, but once Zemeckis gets to the planning of the coup, as Petit terms it, he confirms his reputation for wrangling state-of-the-art special effects to chest-tightening, palm-sweating ends (especially in IMAX 3-D). Knowing that the subject will survive this gravity-defying feat makes no difference; you're right there with Petit every perilous step of the way. Between Gordon-Levitt's balletic grace and the director's hyper-realistic depiction of steely, cloud-scraping structures that no longer exist, Zemeckis justifies the existence of The Walk. Is it perfect? Not hardly. Is it thrilling? Hell yes.