“To walk on the wire; it’s life.” Those are the words of real-life French high-wire artist, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he explains his passion for what he does and how he goes about it in the new Robert Zemeckis drama, The Walk.
On August 7, 1974, Petit walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He captured the imagination of not only New Yorkers but once it hit the headlines, the world. It was truly a stunning feat. “It was peaceful, calm and serene,” Petit tells us as we witness the unbelievable event seen from angles only a film could present. We’ll never know what it was really like for the audacious Frenchman as he slowly, cautiously made his way, step by careful step from one rooftop to the other, but director Zemeckis, with his never ending box of visual tricks, certainly makes it feel as though we do.
Presented in a way suggesting it’s really all one big, modern day fairy tale, The Walk takes us back to Petit’s earlier life when the inspiration to juggle, to perform and, more importantly, to walk a high-wire first occurred. The walk itself, the shaky start and the aftermath, occupy the final thirty minutes. The first two thirds leading up to that daunting exhibition is a surprisingly fast-paced and largely entertaining look at Petit’s inspiration, the people he enlists to help him, and the preparations made to make the whole thing work.
When we first meet Petit, he’s perched on the torch of the Statue of Liberty with the Manhattan skyline, including the Twin Towers, acting as a kind of theatrical backdrop behind him. This where the performer with his infectious and hugely expressive continental manner tells us his story. Out of any other moment in the film, that initial introduction is the one where audiences will need to adjust. Knowing Gordon-Levitt and knowing how he sounds, hearing him talk directly to us with a French accent is admittedly jarring. But it’s not a comical accent; it’s authentic, and even though you may feel the urge to suppress a smile as the thought of perhaps a Monty Python sketch springs to mind, within a minute you buy it. There’s not a moment that follows where the film gives you pause to think otherwise, particularly when the actor speaks French to fellow Frenchmen accompanied by subtitles. It naturally blends and it’s very impressive.
Those early flashbacks are presented in a fabulous looking widescreen black and white as a French language version of The Archies’ Sugar Sugar plays, while police – their uniforms in color – chase Petit through the streets of Paris. The street performer pays no fee for public exhibitions and often finds himself on the run. But he takes it in his stride; it’s as though being chased is all part of the fun.
Even though The Walk is a true story and the characters within the film are evidently no embellishments, you have to wonder how many of the conflicts and the situations are actually real, and if they are, did they happen in the way they do in the film? In addition to being something of a technical magician, Zemeckis can also fill his story-telling talents with nail-biting conflict after last minute conflict that occasionally echoes a familiar style. As the sun rises and time is running out, Petit and his helpers are still trying to get the cables between the towers in place. The race-against-time is reminiscent of the climactic clock tower episode in Zemeckis’ Back to the Future where Marty and Doc have to have that darned cable in place before the minute has passed.
There are other tricks Zemeckis employs just to make the ordinary seem interesting. When Petit looks at a newspaper picture of the towers and draws a pencil line between the two, the moment is seen from the point of view of the newspaper, looking up. When the young man begins practicing walking the wire using five ropes for safety tied between two trees, one by one, each rope fades beneath his feet indicating the passing of time until the walk is completed with only one remaining line.
Much will be debated whether to pay extra to see The Walk in IMAX 3D or on a regular screen. Personally, the regular and visually brighter appearance will always win out over movie trickery, but there’s a lot to be said for what Zemeckis has done. The system remains imperfect and my own objections extend way beyond the look of a simple dull screen – the clarity is often softened to the point of appearing blurry, continually sacrificing the overall sharpness of the image for the sake of a gimmick – but once the high wire act begins, the look of that 110 story drop over the streets of NYC is initially alarming and extremely effective. We know the outcome going in so the tension of wondering whether he’ll fall or not is never really there, yet regardless, audiences will be permanently on edge. You can’t help it. When Petit takes that first step, hearts will pound, and seeing that depth either side will cause you to repeatedly hold your breath. If a fear of heights, even an artificially induced one as presented here, is a problem for you, be warned.
And finally, seeing the towers again will undoubtedly evoke all kinds of uncomfortable memories. It may be fourteen years since the tragedy of 9/11 but the passing of time softens nothing. While witnessing Petit and his crew shuffle their equipment on the roof of the World Trade Center as they occasionally peer over the sides to see the giddying drop, it’s only natural our minds will turn to events not related to the film. How can you not? But The Walk treats the WTC with genuine respect. “He brought the towers to life,” one bystander remarks. The final shot may well inspire applause.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 123 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)