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A 'Walk' on the High Side

How aerialist Philippe Petit conquered the Twin Towers

(Video) 'The Walk' Movie Trailer: In 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit recruits a team of people to help him realize his dream: to walk the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.

Rating: PG

Run time: 2 hours 3 minutes

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon

Director: Robert Zemeckis

En español |If escalators make you dizzy, this is not the movie for you.

Likewise if you slide down that window shade the second you board a plane, or if you haven't mustered the courage to change a ceiling light in 40 years.

The Walk, writer-director Robert Zemeckis' vertigo-inducing account of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit's 1974 stroll between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, is merciless in its depiction of deathly depths, horrific heights and the (literally) delicate balance required to navigate them both.

It also happens to be cinema's greatest achievement in 3-D moviemaking, so do yourself a favor and splurge on a pair of those chunky glasses.

Like a wire walker tentatively inching that first foot forward, The Walk takes a bit of time to get going. When we meet Petit — played with twinkly-eyed good humor and a thick French accent by the elfin Joseph Gordon-Levitt — he's a talented but unknown Parisian street performer. But soon, under the tutelage of a veteran high-wire star (a fatherly Ben Kingsley), he achieves notoriety by surreptitiously hanging a wire between the original twin towers — those of Notre Dame Cathedral — and performing a dizzying walk through thin air to "Ooh la-las" from the crowd below.

But Petit has an even grander obsession: He's determined to string a wire between New York's WTC towers, still under construction in 1974. He enlists a team of cohorts from both sides of the Atlantic and goes to work planning what he repeatedly calls his "coup."

The Walk

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

'The Walk' is the true story of a young dreamer, Philippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a band of unlikely recruits who together achieve the impossible: an illegal wire walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.

The first part of The Walk plays like a caper film; even the soundtrack, by Oscar-nominated Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump), has a jaunty, Ocean's Eleven feel to it. The team scouts out the construction site, bluffing its way onto elevators and infiltrating a press conference to glean critical information about the towers going up.

But from the moment Petit takes that first step into the void 110 stories high, The Walk becomes something quite different: a kind of visual poem, with each transit of the space between the towers a new verse. The music fades away — or at least it seems to — and all we hear is the rustle of the wind and the creak of the wire. A curious seagull arrives on one pass, an air-churning police helicopter on another. Eventually the inevitable police sirens waft up from the street. Through it all walks Petit, eyes focused only on the far end of his lifeline.

"Don't look down" may be the first commandment for aerialists, but director Zemeckis spectacularly ignores it. Seamlessly blending computer imaging and 3-D technology, his camera soars above Petit, swoops below him, comes in close on his face, his slippered feet, his delicate hands.

Then there's the chasm below him. On the big screen it seems to fall away from us like the background in a Dali painting, the sharp vertical lines of the towers converging toward a vanishing point somewhere beneath the streets of Manhattan. From the earliest days of popular 3-D features in the 1950s, filmmakers have known the technology's most startling effect is the "stick in the eye" trick — a long horizontal spear or arrow that seems on the verge of stabbing viewers in the face. Zemeckis is not above tweaking that old gag throughout The Walk: In the end, the Twin Towers serve as the most eye-popping eye-pokers ever.

Zemeckis is well aware of the bittersweet sentiments his American audiences will feel as they watch the Twin Towers re-created in all their boxy glory, dominating the Manhattan skyline as they did from 1973 to 2001. He lingers on them repeatedly in the second reel; every time another character turns a corner, it seems, there they are. By the time Petit's stunt gets under way, we've almost grown accustomed to having them back, freeing us to savor the insane obsession and off-world skills of the wire walker rather than the fiery fate of the two iconic structures.

In a lovely, understated coda, Petit shows off his lifetime pass to the World Trade Center's observation deck. The expiration date has been crossed out, replaced with the word "Forever."

Nothing is forever. But The Walk reminds us that the human spirit can sometimes transcend time — and vast open spaces.

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