Robert Zemeckis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt had their work cut out for them in making "The Walk," their account of French aerialist Philippe Petit's celebrated high-wire stroll between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Not that the inherent technical demands were a reach for Zemeckis. His well-known zeal for such challenges stretches from "Forrest Gump" to the motion-capture stumbles and successes of "The Polar Express" and "A Christmas Carol." The real hurdle was putting together an account on a par with the 2008 Petit portrait "Man on Wire," perhaps the most ebulliently absorbing documentary of the last several years.
Zemeckis's true-ish version doesn't reach those heights throughout, as it proves tricky to capture and dramatize Petit's street-performer whimsy in a way that doesn't feel forced. Still, Gordon-Levitt is likably energetic, gamely owning his spotty French accent, and intriguingly playing the intensity propeling Petit toward the void. Plus, a narrative feature can do what the documentary couldn't: re-create the tightrope act in full, glorious motion, rather than editing together surreptitiously snapped photos. These dizzying IMAX 3-D visuals truly are big-screen magic, taking us inside Petit's transcendent experience as he navigates his preternatural path, indulges his showman's flair, and — agh! — reclines to commune with the heavens.
The movie's early going looks back at Petit when he was a young wannabe begging for advice from veteran circus wirewalker Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, working a Czech accent nearly as over the top as his cigarette holder). Black-and-white sequences stylized with splashes of color put us in the crowd at Petit's early Paris street performances. We see how he met his girlfriend and confidante, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and how he latched onto his impossible dream of conquering the Twin Towers, then still under construction. His warm-up: Notre Dame cathedral.
It's all meanderingly familiar until the focus turns to planning the New York walk, or as Petit gleefully calls it, his "coup." That's when the action shifts into caper mode, right down to the jazzy score, and the movie starts powering toward its thrilling final act. James Badge Dale is fun as a witty Manhattan shopkeeper who falls in with Petit's ragtag crew of accomplices/enablers, which includes cautious Jean-Louis (Ben Schwartz) and acrophobic Jean-Francois (César Domboy). But make no mistake, this is Petit's show. And thanks to some genuinely extraordinary work by Zemeckis and company, we can feel like death-defying virtual costars.
★ ★ ★
At Boston Common, Assembly Row, Jordan's IMAX Reading, Natick.
Running time 123 minutes.
Rated PG (thematic elements involving perilous situations, brief nudity, language, brief drug references, smoking).
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.