Visual and emotional dazzlers finally pop and crackle in the last 20 minutes of The Walk, the new Robert Zemeckis-directed movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as daredevil French aerialist Phillippe Petit. On August 7, 1974, Petit staged what he called his grand “coup” – eight wondrous, strictly illegal, anarchic wire-walks across a steel cable, strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It’s during this stretch of the movie (see it in 3D and IMAX if you can) that we’re sent up 110 dizzying stories over Lower Manhattan and, step by agonizing step, we’re so close to the physical action that The Walk becomes the exhilarating, stomach-knotting, deeply moving thing it’s been promising to be for its previous 80-something minutes. Before that, though, the movie is strictly a matter of personal taste.

The screenplay, written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, goes heavy on childlike whimsy and requires Gordon-Levitt (donning contact lenses and a dubious pixie wig) to directly address the audience in a thick French accent while sitting in the torch of the Statue of Liberty as he narrates his journey. Petit rises from homeless vagabond, Parisian street juggler, unicyclist, and mime to student of cranky Czech circus funambulist (Ben Kingsley), to assembling his group of amiable accomplices in his attempt to glorify his high-wire skills, his taste for anarchy, the Twin Towers, and New York itself. Zemeckis handles these scenes in a broad, hyperkinetic, almost feature animation style as if they’re out of Hugo or Amelie, which is probably supposed to make the self-absorbed, super confident Petit seem quixotic, romantic and cuddly as the film itself. It’s an odd choice.

Petit’s intrepid cohorts are as delightful and unselfish as he isn’t and they include a lovely, independent street singer (Charlotte Le Bon) whom Petit romances, a photographer (Clement Sibony), and a math genius suffering from a severe case of vertigo (Cesar Domboy). Once Petit and his co-conspirators switch the base of their cloak and dagger operations to Manhattan, they’re joined by the quirky and memorable James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Steve Valentine.

All is forgiven once Gordon-Levitt steps out onto that wire and into what Petit called “the void.” From a technical standpoint alone, that walk itself is a triumph, but it’s also a thing of inspiration and majesty, a tribute to dreamers, fools, and artists who attempt and achieve the impossible.

Even minus the indelible images and emotions stirred by our knowledge of what was to happen at the Twin Towers, it’s during this section of the movie that Gordon-Levitt wins cheers and finally, finally director Robert Zemeckis – a guy who spent a decade on motion capture non-starters like Beowulf and The Polar Express — reemerges and returns to the level of startling moviemaking we’ve missed since the days of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Of course, it doesn’t help that the brilliant Oscar winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire told the same story for real and better. For its final stretch alone, The Walk is worth seeing.

The Walk

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