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N.Y. Film Festival review: A vertiginous "Walk"

It was one of those New York stories that, if it were a movie, no one would ever believe could happen: an aerialist captivates the city, and the world, by walking a high wire surreptitiously strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Even though the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary "Man on Wire" recounted Philippe Petit's monumental 1974 walk above New York, that engrossing film had to make do with still photos, a few reenactments, and interviews with Petit and his band of conspirators who'd helped him stage what he called his "artistic coup." Sadly, no film footage exists of Petit's 45-minute performance.

"The Walk" (which had its world premiere Saturday at the New York Film Festival) aims to rectify that. Using expert visual effects, 3-D imagery, and a convincing performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film deftly recreates the vertiginous sight of Petit performing his act 110 stories above the ground.

It was an astounding act, and the movie's evocation of the stunt, like the wire walk, is both nimble and perilous.

The story, presented by Gordon-Levitt while perched atop the Statue of Liberty, is recounted with the hindsight of an artist proudly recalling his greatest achievement, never to be topped. Flashbacks recall Petit's youth, his early attempts to master the high wire, and his falling under the wing of a circus master, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who tutors him not only in engineering requirements but also in performance.

Petit then moves to Paris, where his street performances (such as a walk between the spires of Notre Dame) draw the attention of the police -- and a young musician, Annie (Catherine Le Bon), who immediately agrees to help Petit realize his dream, sparked when he spies a photo of the World Trade Center -- then under construction -- in a magazine.

The screenplay lays out the story as a procedural: upon arriving in New York, Petit and his team case the joint, wear disguises, avoid security guards, recruit inside help, get their gear up to the tops of the towers, and rig the wire in the few hours available before any cops or suspicious workers can stop them. Of course, obstacles get in their way and threaten to derail the entire enterprise (as when Petit walks onto a nail that pierces his foot), but his buoyant belief propels his entire crew forward toward achieving his "coup."

Director Robert Zemeckis, whose best films include "Back to the Future" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," has often used cutting-edge technology to tell his stories. While his films have sometimes become swamped with technical tricks (such as "Forrest Gump" and his performance-capture animated features "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf"), his most recent film, "Flight," had the good sense to allow Denzel Washington to remain the central focus.

With "The Walk," Zemeckis doesn't quite have that luxury; Petit's stunt, even more than Petit himself, is the whole point of the film, regardless of dialogue about achieving one's impossible dream that underlines in italics the specialness of Petit's feat. Fortunately, the technical and design achievements of conjuring 1970s New York are exemplary.

Alas, while there are some shots whose raison d'etre appears to be to show off the 3-D wizardry (Watch Petit juggle, then swallow, a piece of candy destined to send him to the dentist's office!), the real magic comes with the stillness, and rapture, of watching him perform on the wire way, way above the ground.

It's the more quiet and serene shots that work the film's magic best, as when, on the morning of the wire walk, the rising sun turns the air around Petit, perched at the ready, into a gauzy glow, and his wire appears to disappear into infinity.

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in "The Walk." TriStar Pictures

Gordon-Levitt trained with Petit himself to master the techniques of wire walking, and with the aid of a stunt double in select shots, he makes us believe.

Naturally, it is impossible to watch all this without thinking on the loss of the Twin Towers themselves. In addition to wide shots of the towers from above or below, the sets for the World Trade Center, the lobby, loading docks and plaza are recreated with a poignant accuracy. There is no foresight, or forthright statement made, regarding the 9/11 terror attacks, though one character correctly points out that New Yorkers loved the architecturally-maligned towers only after Petit has walked between them -- he'd given them their "soul," she says. "The Walk," therefore, captures the birth of that soul.

"The Walk" is rated PG for perilous situations (kids, don't try this at home), and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking. Running time: 124 mins. Released by TriStar Pictures. The film begins regular engagements on September 30 (a 3-D screening is pretty much a necessity).

To watch a trailer for "The Walk," click on the video player below.

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