"Now I've seen everything," an anonymous New Yorker remarks, marveling at the spectacle unfolding more than 100 stories above street level. It's the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, and Philippe Petit is walking across a steel cable strung between the towers of the World Trade Center. Amid the gasps and murmurs, that line stands out, and invites a bit of pondering. It's an expression of wonder, for sure, but it also carries an implication of jadedness, especially for moviegoers. All the surround-sound bells and whistles and digitally enhanced fireworks in the world can't quite shake us out of the feeling that we've seen it all before.
But we haven't. There is always something new under the sun. To stop believing that - to mean it when we say we've seen everything - would be to give up on art and surrender to cynicism. The Walk, Robert Zemeckis' painstaking and dazzling cinematic re-creation of Petit's feat, stands in passionate opposition to that kind of thinking. There will always be fresh, hitherto unimagined wonders in store. And fresh horrors too, as the sight of the twin towers can't help but remind us.
Innocence has often been a theme of Zemeckis' films - not so much its loss or recovery as its stubborn persistence. Forrest Gump, Cast Away and the Back to the Future movies are stories of optimists battling the cruelty of history and the indifference of the universe. They are also, each one in its own way, testaments to the ingenuity of their maker. Though he may see himself as more of a tinkerer than a visionary, Zemeckis frequently uses the novelty of special effects in the service of an aesthetic idea that is also a moral ideal. Like Petit, Zemeckis is interested in tackling the impossible, which is to say, in discovering new possibilities for delight and awe and celebrating the transformative power of human creativity.
The impossible, as you may have read on a poster somewhere, can take a while. The Walk does not hit its stride right away. I might go a little further: The first half of the movie treads the boundary between mildly irritating and completely unbearable. Petit, an elfin Frenchman with a terrible haircut, is played by manic-pixie song-and-dance man Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an irrepressible imp, greeting the audience in accented English from a perch on the Statue of Liberty's torch. The Manhattan skyline - digitally rendered to include the towers and to omit more recent construction - stretches out in the background, and the lady in the harbor stoically tolerates the presence of her voluble compatriot.
You might have a harder time. Let me see if I can put the matter in scientific terms. Philippe, in addition to being an aspiring wire-walker, is a juggler, a mime and a unicyclist. He is, as I've mentioned, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This makes him, objectively speaking, the most annoying person on earth. And "The Walk," before ascending into the New York sky, tries to seduce you with forced amazement and sleeve-tugging displays of whimsy. Instead of wowing you, the movie gets in your face and yells, "Wow!" It's not quite the same feeling.
But all of the bustling 3-D IMAX mugging and pratfalling is really just the warm-up act, as is the mildly diverting tale of the period in Philippe's life leading up to what he calls "the coup." Glimpsing a pretty busker on a Paris street (she's singing a Leonard Cohen song in French), he steals her audience and then, bien sur, her heart. Her name is Annie; she's played by Charlotte Le Bon, and she becomes the first of Philippe's accomplices. Joining them are a photographer named Jean-Louis (Cement Sibony) and a math whiz named Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy) who is afraid of heights. Philippe's mentor is an irascible Czech funambulist played, as an irascible Czech funambulist in a movie of this kind must be played, by Ben Kingsley.
After some practice and planning, the coup plotters head to New York, where they acquire a few more accomplices (including James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz and the scene-stealing Steve Valentine) and begin their infiltration of the as-yet-unfinished Trade Center. Almost magically, The Walk transforms itself into a beguiling caper movie, full of comic energy and nimble ingenuity. Whereas the earlier sections suffered from an absence of dramatic conflict - Philippe is immune to doubt, averse to introspection and impossible to argue with - the Manhattan chapters hum with practical, tactical excitement. There are so many problems to solve: security guards to evade; equipment to test; disguises to wear.
It's a lot of fun, with darker implications falling across the story like early morning shadows on a sunny day. There are tensions among Philippe and his comrades, including Annie. There is the danger of the coup, itself. And of course, for the audience, there is the inevitable premonition of grief. But Zemeckis, who wrote the script with Christopher Browne, spares us heavy-handed portents of destruction. Instead, he acknowledges the loss of the towers by lovingly and meticulously resurrecting them at the moment of their birth. The film becomes a poem of metal and concrete, a symphony composed in glass and rebar, light and air and brought alive by an antic, crazy inspiration.
It has often been said that Petit taught New Yorkers to love the twin monoliths that were initially viewed as bland, arrogant interlopers on a cherished skyline. His coup, recounted in his book "To Reach the Clouds" and in James Marsh's excellent documentary Man on Wire, is a cherished and bittersweet part of local history, and Zemeckis, astonishingly, brings it back into the present tense. Even though the outcome is never in doubt - this may be the most spoiler-proof movie ever made - you can't help but hold your breath and clutch the armrests when Philippe steps out into the sky. The reality of the moment is so vivid that you may reflexively recoil, as if you risked plunging onto the sidewalk below. And the moment lasts. I had forgotten just how long Petit stayed up there, stretching a daredevil act into an astonishing and durable work of art.
In paying tribute to that accomplishment, Zemeckis has also matched it. He has used all his brazenness and skill to make something that, once it leaves the ground, defies, not only gravity, but time, as well.
The Walk is rated PG (Some material may not be suitable for children). It condones trespassing, disregard for authority and neglect of personal safety. Your kids will love it.