Robert Zemeckis’ film retells the true story of French high wire artist Philippe Petit who realised his dream to carry out a daring (and completely illegal) high wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. As you’d expect from Zemeckis, technical wizardry abounds in this movie, from the judicious use of 3D to the recreation of places and events long since gone. However, unlike his previous technically focussed efforts, there’s a great deal more humanity and warmth in this, thanks mostly to the larger than life personality of Petit himself and the sheer audacity of the story the film tells.
There’s something so impossibly effusive about the character of Philippe Petit as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt that you may be tempted to dismiss it as an affected, almost manic dream-boy pixie personification of the man himself. However, if you’ve seen James Marsh’s superb 2006 documentary then you’ll know that, if anything, Gordon-Levitt reins it in a bit. His accent lands safely this side of “’Allo ‘Allo” parody and it’s wonderful to know that he was taught to walk the high wire by Petit himself, performing the final spectacular World Trade Centre walk scenes some 12 feet above the floor of the studio where they were filmed.
Very much styled as a heist caper, the film takes a breezy and brisk route through Petit’s early life, picking up only one of his pre-New York high wire stunts, staged at the Notre Dame Cathedral (he also performed a stunt walk at Sydney Harbour Bridge the year prior to New York), preferring to focus on the preparations and set-up for ‘le coup’ as he called it.
Zemeckis’ film, however, is as much a love letter to the twin towers as to the incredible feat and the World Trade Centre is as much a character in the film as Petit himself. There’s a purity of spirit in Petit’s artistic drive to perform ‘le coup’ which, with the benefit of hindsight, feels like a pre-emptive, defiantly optimistic and hopeful gesture against the horrors which would unfold decades later.
The events of September 11th 2001 haunt the film, permeating every New York scene. The casual ease with which Petit and his team are able to infiltrate and study the building, the relaxed customs arrangements which allowed him to bring so much strange equipment with him by air and the openness and gentle pragmatism of the law enforcement during and after the stunt all unavoidably call out to freedoms which have been lost or sacrificed to fear since the towers were destroyed. The events of September 11th changed the entire world in a single day, making it a darker, more foreboding place to live in and “The Walk” lets us remember – even if only briefly – what the world used to be like.
Thankfully, so much of Petit’s joie de vivre makes it onto the screen that it never once feels maudlin or inappropriate to celebrate the buildings or the beauty of what he achieved that day. All of Zemeckis’ technical skills are brought to bear on the final, breath-taking scenes which show the actual walk – thereby correcting a forty year injustice because no film footage exists of the walk itself, only still photographs. It’s testament to Zemeckis’ skill and Gordon-Levitt’s performance that the fifteen minute sequence is so incredibly tense and gripping – after all, we know the outcome and yet the edge of your seat will never feel more precipitous. Dizzying, dazzling and joyously uplifting, “The Walk” is an exhilarating, occasionally vertiginous, affirmation of the beauty and power of performance.