Those of us who have been waiting forever for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make a musical now have the next best thing: In Robert Zemeckis' The Walk, this breezy Puck of an actor plays high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who walked the space between the World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974 — a quarter-mile above the ground. In The Walk, Gordon-Levitt moves like a natural. When his Petit finally gets to take that famous aerial stroll — picking his way along that impossibly narrow cable in soft, barely-there leather slippers that wouldn't snap a twig in the forest — he's both fawn and faun, sure of his place in nature and the universe. The Walk, in its last half at least, is a dazzling piece of work, particularly in 3-D; even so, its most luminous effect is an actor. It could have, maybe should have, been called Something in the Way He Moves.
You should be forewarned that the first half of The Walk — covering Petit's early years in Paris as a wirewalker-in-training and detailing his crazy-passionate plan to traverse the air between the twin towers, which were still under construction at the time — is beleaguered by whimsy, so let's get that part over with: Petit unicycling through Paris! Petit juggling! Petit learning the highs and lows of wirewalking from Ben Kingsley's Czech-émigré acrobat, Papa Rudy! Petit meeting Annie, the cutie-pie street singer who will become his girlfriend! (She's played by Charlotte Le Bon, delicate as a macaron and with about as much bite.) Even during the snoozy parts, Zemeckis uses 3-D effects cleverly: At home in Paris, Petit, working out what he would come to call "le coup," balances a little paper man on a string stretched between two wine bottles — the image pops in front of us, though the earnest delight, and undiluted optimism, on Gordon-Levitt's face is the real pleasure.
Yet all of that is just preamble to the great part of The Walk, which begins when Petit arrives in New York with a three-person crew: Clément Sibony's dashing and passionate photographer Jean-Louis, César Domboy's charming acrophobic Jean-François, and loyal girlfriend Annie. Stateside, Petit picks up a few other accomplices, most notably James Badge Dale's swaggering, French-speaking J.P., and proceeds to fine-tune his plan, which involves figuring out a way to run a cable between the towers without being detected by police or building officials.
If you've seen James Marsh's extraordinary 2008 documentary Man on Wire, you already know how Petit did this and how ingenious his solution was. But The Walk isn't superfluous just because Man on Wire already exists; if anything, the two are fine companion pieces, each filling in tiles of different texture and color in the mosaic of Petit's story. Zemeckis' approach is admittedly a little weird in places: The Walk is framed by sequences in which Gordon-Levitt's Petit, perched high on the Statue of Liberty, right near the torch and with the twin towers gleaming in the background, directly addresses the camera in ze kind of French accent Americans love to make fun of. Gordon-Levitt is spry and casual enough to make it work, but it's still a little corny; I sometimes wonder, longingly, where the director of sharply funny pictures like Used Cars and Death Becomes Her has gone.
But if any director knows his way around 3-D, it's Zemeckis: He has been working out the kinks in this mode of filmmaking for years, and even if he had to torture us with The Polar Express in the process, The Walk (almost) makes up for it. He comes through in the clutch, beautifully dramatizing both the preparation process and, ultimately, the walk itself. Petit performed his "coup" early in the morning of August 7, 1974, having laid the groundwork the night before: We watch as he and his cohorts smuggle the necessary equipment to the towers' roofs — the milky nighttime light renders the whole scene otherworldly. Zemeckis details, with fascinating precision, the mechanics of stretching that cable — this isn't just a film about dreaming big dreams, but about working out a thousand little problems along the way.
When Gordon-Levitt's Petit finally steps onto that cable, the world below — a dream version of 1970s New York, when crime stopped for at least a few minutes and people's polyester clothes actually looked sort of OK — drops away, leaving only air and clouds and a guy so light on his feet it seems he could almost blow away. But he's really incredibly sturdy and tensile. At one point, Petit kneels on the cable, saluting the wire, his audience, and these two ugly-beauty buildings. A little later, he takes a break by stretching along the cable on his back, like a cat on a windowsill. Zemeckis' 3-D maneuvering (along with Dariusz Wolski's camerawork) makes us feel suspended too. Gordon-Levitt, playing a man who's executing the most dangerous feat of his life, radiates a kind of Zen joy.
Zemeckis ends The Walk with an elegy to the World Trade Center that some will find corny. We've all seen enough hypersentimental twin-tower images, often flanked by soft-focus American-flag imagery, to last 11 lifetimes. In New York, their absence is actually an unerasable presence, no matter how many new skyscrapers spring up around their airspace. When Gordon-Levitt's Petit speaks of them, it's with the tenderness you'd use in reflecting on a lost lover. One little French guy's dream of stringing a cable between these two boxy, unloved wonders and — good God! — walking it is part of what the twin towers were, and are. They're ghost buildings, dissolved into the very air of New York — we still breathe it in.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Steve Valentine. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Christopher Browne and Robert Zemeckis. Based on the book To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit. Opens Wednesday, September 30.