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A “Walk” Among the Skyscrapers (movie review)

By Jeff Boudreaux

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Director Robert Zemeckis has a knack for making extraordinary characters out of ordinary men. We saw it with Marty McFly in “Back to the Future,” Chuck Noland in “Cast Away,” and of course, Forrest Gump in the film that bears his name. This time however, Zemeckis was faced with the task of making an extraordinary man remain so in the chasm between reality and film. In “The Walk,” he certainly succeeds as high-wire artist Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and the death-defying stunt that made him famous, becomes larger than life in IMAX 3D.

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The year is 1974. Petit is an ambitious French street performer who makes a living by walking a tightrope, which is strung wherever he can on the streets of Paris. In the company of mimes, musicians and jugglers, Petit undeniably knows how to wow an audience. He actually met his guitar-playing girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon of “The Hundred Foot Journey”) by stealing her spectators! A consummate perfectionist, when he isn’t “walking” in the park, he’s perfecting his craft under the circus tent of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), an on-and-off mentor due to philosophical differences. Not content with carnivals, parks and sideshows, Petit’s dream is to go bigger. Much bigger. After reading about the ongoing construction of the 110-story Twin Towers in New York City, our hero knows what he must do. He devotes every waking moment to preparing his mind and body for an eventual walk between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center.

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It isn’t long before Petit gains a following, including photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and his friend Jeff (César Domboy), a math teacher who doesn’t speak a word of English and is deathly afraid of heights. Without a doubt, a daredevil’s talent draws from all walks of life! With such a monumental undertaking as his aspirations are, he’ll need some real practice – such as a walk across the belfries at Notre Dame Cathedral, in front of an enthusiastic crowd. When that proves successful, the stage is set for Petit, Annie and friends to venture to America. In the “city that never sleeps,” Petit lays out his plan to pull off the biggest coup in history. What follows is one of the most captivating theatrical journeys in recent memory.

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“The Walk” is an extremely charming movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives perhaps the role of a lifetime as Phillipe Petit, also serving as narrator from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. In a lesser film, the narration aspect could be construed as a gimmick that doesn’t quite fit with the action onscreen. However, the whimsical touch of having Petit address the viewer only adds to its charm. Female lead Le Bon, and French actors Sibony and Domboy are dynamic in the roles of Petit’s companions, who just happen to be with him every “step” of the way. The coup at the World Trade Center actually warrants more accomplices for Petit, and we get to see James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Steve Valentine in funny supporting roles as J.P., Albert and Barry respectively, the American members of the group.

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From the moment I saw the first teaser trailer in December of 2014, I knew this film was going to be something special. Like so many other of Zemeckis’ films, “The Walk” has a magical, timeless quality to it. It’s funny, charismatic, and dramatically tense where it needs to be. When Petit steps out onto the wire, we have no choice but to step in time with him. And trust me, the actual walk exceeds our every expectations. It’s hard to believe that we inhabit a world where daring men risk everything to thrill an audience, even if it’s just a few hundred people on the streets of New York. Performance artists like this seem to be a dying breed, at least I never hear about feats such as these anymore. Maybe I’m just not looking! Or better yet, maybe there just won’t be another Phillipe Petit. “The Walk” serves as not only a fascinating portrait of an amazing person, but as a veritable love letter to the long-gone pillars of strength known as the Twin Towers, as well as the most resilient city on Earth, New York.

**** (four out of four stars)

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