Philippe Petit’s feat has inspired an amazing documentary, and now an amazing feature film.
The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screening in cinemas around New England.
By Paul Dervis
Magic—the kind that puts us on the edge of our seats.
It’s what grabs us when daredevils perform. It’s what keeps us riveted to each step tightrope walkers take. And it’s what writer/director Robert Zemeckis delivers from the opening frame of his new film, The Walk.
Here, he has gotten prestidigitation right.
Magic is a field Zemeckis has played in since the mid-1980s, when he directed the slight romantic adventure Romancing the Stone and the equally slight and commercially popular Back to the Future series. But as successful as those films were, they ultimately were about cultivating a rather cheap emotional response from viewers.
But not here.
The Walk opens with magic from its opening shot. We see an almost too perfect New York skyline, with the Twin Towers highlighted in a shining hue. As the camera pulls back, the Statue of Liberty comes into view—as it pans up the Grand Lady, we see Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dancing on the edge of her torch. It is a breathtaking image, and it kicks off a series of remarkably fanciful scenes.
The film takes us back to the early 1960s, when a young Petit, a boy from the French countryside, is captivated by a traveling circus troupe that features a high-wire acrobat named ‘Papa Rudy’ (another fine, chestnut performance by Ben Kingsley). Petit demands to apprentice at the foot of the master.
In these flashback scenes, Zemeckis plays with color, vibrant splashes surrounded by black and white, as well as sepia tones, the latter evoking the haze of memories. These images are, simply put, thrilling.
Fantasy and the extraordinary are explored further as the film plays with our perceptions of visual dimensions, not unlike an Escher drawing. The prime example of this is when Petit, while waiting at the dentist’s office, flips through a magazine and sees a picture of the World Trade Center. In this mind, the image turns into abstract lines in the air, geometric outlines whose vertical lines, Petit thinks, are calling out to him. He is determined, from that moment, to cross those lines.
But he must walk the rope between the towers before they are officially opened or the precious opportunity will be lost. It becomes a race against time. With a crew made up of both French compatriots and New York sympathizers, he sets off to squeeze plans for ‘the walk’ in a ridiculously short time frame.
Much can go awry even before he attempts the high-wire act, and much of it does go wrong. But, as if guided by Divine Providence, nothing completely derails the artist or his loyal collaborators. Even an early morning appearance of a man at the top of the tower, just as the trespassers are securing the wire. After an agonizing pause, after staring at Petit, the silent figure simply turns and leaves. Who was he? Petit never found out.
Of course, the film is ultimately about ‘the walk.’ Even though we know how it turns out, it does not make the movie’s exhilarating vision any less moving. Again, it is Zemeckis’ visuals that enthrall us. The sequence is nothing less than breathtaking: we watch Petit navigate the 120-foot wire, a convincingly endless abyss sitting beneath. Yet it is glimpses of the sky above, the deep blue against the moving white clouds, a bird that follows the walker, that gob-smack us.
Without question this film exists because of 9/11…it is clearly a tragic undercurrent to the images we are taking in. Still, Zemeckis should take credit for not exploiting that event. He invites viewers to let the images resonate as they will.
Gordon-Levitt, who is best known by way of the television comedy series 3rd Rock from the Sun (though he had meaty earlier credits, such as A River Runs Through It and The Juror) shows here that he can carry a film virtually by himself. The Walk‘s major weak spot is its dialogue, which at times is a bit overly sentimental and at other times artificially upbeat. But Gordon-Levitt never lets the optimism get the upper hand. He makes the character positive yet complex, a man energized by an undeniable joie de vivre.
A nice touch in this film is that it answers a long forgotten question. In 1974, many viewed the World Trade Center as a garish, bullying display of height … a blight on the New York landscape. After 25 years the buildings had become beloved, and Zemeckis believes Petit had a large hand in that transformation.
Maybe he did.
The 2008 documentary about this miraculous feat, Man on Wire, played on cable TV this past summer. Clearly an inspiration for this film, it was so good there was a real fear that any fictional version would be a disappointment.
There was no reason to worry. Petit has inspired an amazing documentary, and an amazing feature film.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.