“The Walk” between the Twin Towers

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit in "The Walk." — Photo courtesy theyoungfolks.com

Who but a madman would want to walk on a wire suspended between New York’s Twin Towers? Frenchman Philippe Petit did it in 1974, and he is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “The Walk.” This fictionalized version of the historical event plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend.

The 24-year-old high-wire artist accomplished the seemingly impossible feat, walking, kneeling, and lying down for over 45 minutes at a height of 1,350 feet. At the time, the towers were the tallest buildings in the world. The 2009 documentary “Man on a Wire,” which won an Oscar, might make “The Walk” seem unnecessary and redundant. Not so. Unless you have absolutely no fear of heights, “The Walk” may be the scariest movie you’ll ever see. Special effects genius Robert Zemeckis — he also directed “Castaway” and “The Polar Express” — recreates Petit’s feat in 3D with a terrifying power that “Man on Wire” cannot match.

“The Walk” begins slowly and conventionally, with the fictional Petit narrating from a perch on top of the Statue of Liberty, the now-gone Towers in the background. His high-wire ambitions begin with street performances as a mime, magician, and unicyclist in Paris. Soon he meets street singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and circus mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the first members of a crew that will help him achieve the impossible. He demonstrates his potential by walking between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, and once he sees a newspaper photo of the Twin Towers, he’s off and running — or walking fast.

After the film shifts to New York, “The Walk,” based on Petit’s memoir “To Reach the Clouds,” turns into a nail-biting suspense film. Because of Zemeckis’ FX genius and the way the narrative frames this real-life event, “The Walk” becomes more frightening than any car chase, monster mash, or even a feet-on-the-ground mountain climb. Assembling a group of co-conspirators that include acrophobic math teacher Jean-Francois (César Domboy), Petit’s preparations are meticulous and fascinating. He disguises himself so he can visit the 110-story Towers, under final construction, undetected. One potentially defeating obstacle after another ramps up the tension. Once he and his co-conspirators succeed in sneaking illegally up to the Tower tops, Petit hops perilously around the rooftop edge, evades a guard and retrieves the arrow-driven fish line that allows him to span the 140-foot distance with a cable and two stabilizing wires.

It’s harrowing to watch this performer prance back and forth over such an an abyss, even though you know he’ll succeed. With police waiting on each side and crowds watching below, he is clearly exhilarated by a not-to-be-matched feat of derring-do. The film does not delve deeply into Petit’s motivation, or the fact that the Twin Towers were later destroyed in an act of terrorism. The achievement stands on its own — illegal, artistic, aspirational, and transcendent. Along with Zemeckis’ skill, Gordon-Levitt’s characterization, by emphasizing Petit’s charm rather than his monomania, helps make “The Walk” an unforgettable cinematic experience.

“The Walk,” Friday, October 16, Saturday, October 17, and Sunday, October 18, 7:30 pm, MV Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For tickets and information, see mvfilmsociety.com.