The feat that made Philippe Petit legendary—his tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974—was both brave and insane. What made 2008’s Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary about his achievement, so striking was that despite full access to Petit and his cohorts, the film never really explained why he did it. That’s not a criticism: Director James Marsh was smart enough to preserve the mystery and let the viewer assign a motive. Was Petit a pure artist or a ridiculous megalomaniac who nearly got himself killed? Is there really any difference?

What keeps The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis’s fictional version of Petit’s high-wire act, from scaling such heights is that it doesn’t entirely work as either an investigation of its hero’s psyche or a teasing riddle as to what made him tick. But that doesn’t matter, and Zemeckis knows it. Like an undeniable pop song with lame verses but a killer chorus, this film gets away with a certain amount of iffy storytelling because where it’s heading is guaranteed to wow you. I only wish the road to the top had been smoother.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Petit; in an attempt to humanize such an extreme and polarizing character, he narrates the story directly to us from atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, recalling the events that led to his WTC stunt. But by design, his reasons don’t make much sense: A natural-born performer engrossed by tightrope-walkers as a child, he learns of the Twin Towers’ construction while living in France, and decides it would be an audacious work of art to walk between them. Repeatedly, Petit tells everyone around him—including the charming, beguiling Annie (Charlotte Le Bon)—that this walk is his dream, and he persuades his friends to help him realize it, not because it’s wise, but because they know they can’t talk him out of it.

The first half of The Walk sets all that up, and after the smart, intimate drama of 2012’s Flight—Zemeckis’s first live-action feature after years focusing on motion-capture animation—it’s a disappointment that as the director and co-screenwriter here, he settles for a labored, whimsical tone. Based on Petit’s own memoir, the script clearly believes that the best way to dramatize a character with murky motivations is to coddle him, portraying the guy mostly as adorable and precious. Consequently, whether it’s the tentative love story between Petit and Annie or the WTC-scaling plot he devises with his friends, there’s always a touch too much pixie dust in the air, as though this were merely a cutesy fairy tale.

In tune with his director, our star takes on an impish tinge, with a physical grace but, more importantly, a ramrod surety, a preternatural confidence in the ludicrousness of his dream. Petit never completely justifies his quest, but the actor at least tries to connects the dots for us: The reason Petit wants to do it is that Petit wants to do it, end of story. Although there’s a tendency to make such stubbornness lovable, Gordon-Levitt takes that insatiable drive seriously, and it’s that guilelessness (mixed with his inscrutability) that keeps us compelled. Even his iffy French accent works in context: We never entirely lose the suspicion that Petit is something of a con artist, and Gordon-Levitt integrates our doubts into his performance without judging the man.

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Still, Man on Wire beats The Walk not just because it came first, but because it wasn’t afraid to portray Petit as a bratty, self-absorbed twit, rather than merely wrap the tightrope-walker in hosannas. That approach made Petit’s eventual WTC feat all the more astounding: The guy could be a selfish SOB, but he also did something truly extraordinary that August morning in 1974. The Walk furthers the documentary’s heist-movie narrative, but it’s a little too awed by that heist’s ringleader.

But the final act here is so good that all of that hardly matters. Between Flight’s opening plane crash and this film’s climactic Twin Towers walk—to say nothing of Cast Away’s harrowing plane crash—Zemeckis is a master at concocting phobia-inducing nightmares. Screening in 3D IMAX, The Walk thoroughly exploits Petit’s vertiginous act, first jangling our nerves with his last-minute preparations as his team sneaks into the building and onto the roof, and then executing the stunt’s (and the movie’s) breathtaking centerpiece.

And I do mean “breathtaking.” During much of Petit’s actual walk, I actually couldn’t breathe, the air stuck in my lungs, unable to escape. Even though I knew the outcome—even though I knew Zemeckis was working with CG—The Walk’s bravura finale is one of the most harrowing and extraordinary sequences I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s also unspeakably moving and poetic, using little dialogue and instead letting Petit simply be in a world only he knows. The extended set piece is terrifying, but it’s also beautiful, and Gordon-Levitt’s serene expression in the face of certain death expresses more of Petit’s mindset than two hours of cheesy narration ever could. Watching Everest, another recent large-format thriller, I never forgot that I was looking at digital trickery, that those crazy climbers weren’t actually stuck on a mountain. But in this case, the effects are completely immersive and convincing: It’s its own work of art right alongside Petit’s.

Is that enough to forgive much of what comes before it? Mostly. The majestic grandeur of the WTC walk itself is a conscious tonal pivot from the madcap and whimsical vibe The Walk painfully takes pains to establish, but did this movie really have to be so cloying? No, but you should still see it on the biggest screen you can find, and be patient until you get to the reason why.

Grade: B


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.