The word “breathtaking” is all too often thrown around in movie reviews, pretty much to the point that it has lost a great deal of its meaning. A great deal, but not all. The proof can be seen in the films in which technical achievement, narrative flow, thematic resonance, and performance skills are not merely evident but practically radiating off the screen. Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk is such a film. In the least hackneyed sense of the word, it’s utterly breathtaking. This is true not just of the story or the acting, but also of the visuals; in much the same way as Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 masterpiece Gravity, it uses special effects and the IMAX 3D process to create a unique immersive experience, one that’s just as awe-inspiring as it is suspenseful. You do, of course, have the option of seeing The Walk in a lesser, more accessible 3D format or in old fashioned 2D, but I wouldn’t recommend either one.
The film dramatizes the true story of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist, and his August 1974 illegal walk between the twin towers of the then-incomplete World Trade Center in New York City. Some moviegoers will recall that Petit, along with several of his accomplices, discussed this walk and a great deal of the logistics involved in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire. It was utterly spellbinding, in large part because the reality of Petit’s high-wire stunt just didn’t seem real; with every passing anecdote, with every presented fact and figure, it felt as if a particularly taut heist thriller was slowly unwinding. If a documentary can pull this off, imagine what can be done with a feature film. And imagine a director with Zemeckis’ sensibilities making it possible. It was a natural progression.
The dramatized version of Petit is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s a spot-on performance, and this goes beyond his ability to fake a French accent and mimic several acrobatic maneuvers; he captures Petit’s passion, his bravado, his arrogance, his defiance of authority, his willingness to attempt the impossible, his inability to feel alive unless faced with death. He narrates the film from the torch of the Statue of Liberty, which is an inspired narrative touch on several levels. Firstly, it exemplifies right off the bat his daredevil proclivities, which were present ever since he was a child. Second, both Lady Liberty and Petit have French origins, and are in effect gifts that were given to the United States. Third, like the World Trade Center was once, the Statue of Liberty is one of America’s most powerful and enduring symbols.
We’re shown enactments of much of what the real Petit described in Man on Wire, from his humble beginnings as a Parisian street performer to his learning of the World Trade Center in a dental office to the gathering of friends/accomplices that enable him to pull off his anarchistic yet victimless high-wire acts, beginning in 1971 with a walk across the bell towers of the Notre Dame cathedral. We see him learning the tricks of the trade from a crotchety Czech circus empresario (Ben Kingsley). We see how he scrimps and saves and plots in order to reach New York City. We see him repeatedly scouting the construction site of the World Trade Center with obsessive focus. We see him and his team masterminding, at times heatedly, the breaching of the towers, which involves not only gaining the confidence of American insiders but also the gathering of the right equipment, the evasion of security guards, and the technical difficulties of getting the wire suspended.
And after a rather satisfying wind-up, we get to the pitch – Petit’s walk between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, an act he affectionately dubbed Le Coup. No written description can do it justice, but I must try. It’s a final act so terrifying and yet so mesmerizing; indeed, I heard a great deal of gasping and groaning from the more acrophobic members of the audience, and I found myself repeatedly gripping my armrest out of sheer exhilaration. Zemeckis is widely known for his reliance on special effects, and here, he puts them to use in spectacular fashion. The aerial shots, simulated though they may have been, were nevertheless dizzying and adrenaline-pumping, especially when we see just how disproportionately scaled Petit is against the 110-story towers … and against the void directly beneath him. It’s hard, damn near impossible, to fathom the fact that the only thing that stood between him and death was a wire no wider than a human finger.
The repercussions of Petit’s high-wire stunt are well-documented, so there’s no need for me to describe it to you. I will instead say that, in paying tribute to Philippe Petit and his dangerously audacious act, The Walk in turn pays tribute to the fallen World Trade Center. And yet, it does so in a way that’s neither mawkish nor condescending. The thought that Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter Christopher Browne would go that route had admittedly crossed my mind. Why wouldn’t it, given how easy it would have been to do, and given that many audiences don’t mind being emotionally manipulated (as exemplified by Oliver Stone’s offensively shameless World Trade Center)? But my fears were happily put to rest. Zemeckis ends his film on a respectful note, and he sees to it that everything leading up to the ending is not only immensely entertaining but compelling as well. What an amazing experience.