An infectious, buoyant brio infuses “The Walk,” a sprightly, occasionally overeager pop-up book of a movie that features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the legendary French high-wire walker Philippe Petit. Tearing into his ersatz accent with gusto and joie de vivre that can be as grating as it is ingratiating, Gordon-Levitt portrays Petit at the very moment he is transformed from obscure Paris busker into pop-culture sensation, by stringing a steel cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and dancing across during the morning rush hour Aug. 7, 1974.
That moment — of hubris, daredeviltry, artistic vision and spiritual transcendence — offers an obvious climax around which to construct “The Walk,” which Robert Zemeckis has directed as a boisterous, fast-paced, family-friendly spectacle in 3-D. But first, he rewinds to how Petit got started as a multitalented street performer, disappointing his middle-class parents and making his way from riding a unicycle and juggling to evincing preternatural balance and grace as an aerialist.
In 1968, the teenage Petit spies an image of the proposed World Trade Center in a magazine and immediately feels the tug of what will become his obsession, passion and life’s vocation. Tutored in technique and stagecraft by the Czech circus performer called Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), Petit embarks on his first “surprise illegal high-wire walk” in 1971 at Notre-Dame de Paris, the Manhattan towers still beckoning.
All of this is related by Gordon-Levitt by way of winsome, boldly colorful flashbacks, while he narrates the events from atop the Statue of Liberty, with the twin towers shining behind him in picture-postcard, backlit perfection. Along with his girlfriend, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and “accomplices” he acquires in France, he finally arrives in New York to case the joint in person, at which point he decides that the towers are “monsters” and “beasts” that can’t possibly be conquered. After some clever reconnaissance, during which he and his cohorts dress as architects to get into the building, Petit regathers his courage, leading his merry band on a perfectly planned prank that’s one part “Ocean’s Eleven” and one part P.T. Barnum.
As a caper flick, “The Walk” is an engaging homage to process and problem solving, and Gordon-Levitt does a fine job of channeling Petit, whose impish sense of mischief belies the messianic ego underneath. But “The Walk” takes on truly thrilling heft once the protagonist is atop the first tower, and the cable that he is meticulously stringing across the gap hurtles earthward. Zemeckis, who is best known for “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away,” is a proven master of special effects, and here he uses 3-D technology with skill and sensitivity: The cable sequence kicks off a climax that turns “The Walk” from a jolly procedural into a reflective exploration of physical and existential extremes, or what Petit himself calls “ze void.” Forget the admonishment “don’t look down.” Zemeckis forces the viewer’s perspective to look down, up, sideways and around with vertiginous verisimilitude.
Filmgoers lucky enough to have seen James Marsh’s deeply moving 2008 documentary “Man On Wire” may see “The Walk” as that film’s shallower, less elegiac cousin — even if both Marsh and Zemeckis note the grim irony that Petit’s free run of the towers would never be possible in the post-9/11 security state.
Zemeckis has never favored subtlety, and he’s too prone to stridency and obviousness (his Wall Street extras are dressed as though they just woke up and raided the Groovy Seventies bin at Party City). Similarly, whereas Marsh paid exquisite homage to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by never explicitly invoking them, Zemeckis turns “The Walk” into a revisionist celebration of restoration, sentimentalizing (and probably exaggerating) Petit’s role in making New Yorkers fall in love with the World Trade Center, and ending on a note that, while undeniably bittersweet, still manages to convey a reassuring sense of optimism.
Happily, there’s enough room in the world for each film and its worldview. While “The Walk” expertly extrudes Petit’s story into easily digestible mainstream entertainment, it may also send a few curious viewers back to Marsh’s film, which can only be a good thing. In and of itself, “The Walk” satisfies as an absorbing yarn of authority-flouting adventure and as an example of stomach-flipping you-are-there-ness. The journey it offers viewers doesn’t just span 140 feet, but also an ethereal, now-vanished, world.
“The Walk” (123 minutes, at select Imax theaters, including AMC Loews Georgetown 14) is rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, profanity, brief drug references and smoking.