Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the high-wire artist Philippe Petit in "The Walk," which tells how this Parisian street performer mesmerized New Yorkers one August morning in 1974 by traversing a self-rigged cable between the Twin Towers. Petit narrates the movie while standing, cheekily, atop Lady Liberty. It's a significant spot: That statue, like Petit's graceful walk, is another much-loved gift bestowed upon us by the French.
That combination of historical symbolism and visual whimsy defines "The Walk," directed with big-budget razzle-dazzle by Robert Zemeckis ("Flight"), who wrote the script with Christopher Browne from Petit's book, "To Reach the Clouds." It's essentially a heist movie -- Petit's stunt was utterly, delightfully illegal -- set in a more innocent and trusting era. "The Walk" also strikes just the right note of melancholy for the 110-story holes left in Manhattan's skyline on Sept. 11, 2001.
Gordon-Levitt might not quite nail Petit's accent -- he sometimes sounds like a certain animated skunk -- but he perfectly captures the man's oh-so-French personality: friendly, passionate, artistic, arrogant. "The Walk" tracks Petit from his younger years to his romance with a fellow busker, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, of "The Hundred-Foot Journey"), and finally to his quixotic and mind-boggling complex mission in New York. Guided by the wisdom of a circus veteran, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), and aided by some unlikely accomplices (Jean-Francois, played by César Domboy, who's terrified of heights), Petit mounts a plan that itself balances between art and insanity.
Zemeckis' high-tech trickery makes the Twin Towers real enough to touch -- Petit even presses his forehead against one -- though it sometimes gives this 3-D movie a cartoonish feel. Loose cables plummet toward us, an arrow nearly spears us, a seagull greets us in the clouds. Such digitally assisted moments remove us from the real world and put us in the realm of fantasy, though that's clearly Zemeckis' intention.
Aside from some mild cursing, "The Walk" is essentially a family film, full of excitement, danger, physical humor (the climactic walk is as thrilling and funny as an old Harold Lloyd movie) and an overall sense of magic. Here, the Twin Towers seem to exist in a fairy tale, like Jack's beanstalk. Once upon a time, of course, they were real.