Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte LeBon, James Badge Dale and Ben Kingsley
It is the early 1970’s and Philippe Petit, a struggling street performer, longs for recognition. Since childhood he has harboured a fascination with high wire walking and now spends his days juggling and miming in the streets of Paris, looking for lampposts or trees to string his wire across for him to perform on. A fortuitous turn of events introduces Philippe to the almost completed Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the world at that time and a dream is born, to suspend his wire between them and walk it, over 100 storeys off the ground… with no safety line.
If the above sounds familiar it’s because The Walk is the very same story as the one so expertly told in the Oscar winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire. That film was also my introduction to Philippe Petit and his pant-wetting feat of August 7th 1974. I have no real problem with heights, I can climb ladders without getting the sweats, but someone who is not just willing but also eager to walk across an inch and a half thick wire, spanning a gap of 140 feet close to 1400 feet off the ground, just puzzles me. Not in terms of ridiculousness, but wonder. I am awestruck by those who dream these impossible challenges and then surmount them – we have plumbed the oceans darkest depths and sent people into space, so are these daredevil feats the only sense of wonder we have left? I believe that everyone has the potential to excel in one particular thing and Petit is proof of this, he is a high wire walker whose Everest was the highest high wire walk in history. Petit is another George Mallory, someone who wishes to do something because it is there to be done and has never been done before. True magic is made when a desire to do something collides with the ability to do that certain something; Petit had not only the will to walk the wire but he also had the confidence. Those people are special, but does The Walk do Philippe Petit justice?
The story at the heart of Zemeckis’ latest film is a remarkable one but unfortunately The Walk itself is not a remarkable film. Man on Wire excelled in telling the story of the crossing, focusing with laser like precision on Petit in that moment, in the build up to the crossing and the immediate aftermath. The Walk is concerned with Petit and explaining the origins of his high wire walking and the birth of his Twin Towers dream (as is the book that this film is based on, To Reach the Clouds, written by Petit himself). In trying to marry both the narrative elements of Petit’s own life story and the actual walk itself Zemeckis falls between two stools as he tries to tell not only why Petit wanted to cross the space between the Twin Towers but also how he did it. In doing so he tries to build the story from a TV movie drama-esque base into a daring heist film, all the while maintaining a light and feel good mood, which doesn’t sit well with either. The film is also awkwardly told – Joseph Gordon-Levitt breaks the fourth wall in the first frame, introducing himself to the audience and narrating the film from the cusp of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, the Twin Towers rising behind him. It is a needlessly twee device and undercuts any sense of tension that could have been built. Zemeckis spends close to an hour on back-story that, after a while, borders on boring and the film very much sags in the middle, but the second half is a much more energised affair and spent addressing his desire to cross the Twin Towers. Here The Walk becomes almost like a 1960’s caper film, it even boasts a jazzy soundtrack that wouldn’t seem amiss in a Cary Grant comedy. But this isn’t a Cary Grant comedy and unfortunately there are moments where ‘Allo ‘Allo and other mock Francophile films seem to be the inspiration. Yet Petit’s devotion to his art is without question. Petit seems drawn to the towers by some sort of spiritual bond with them and the sky. By emphasising the spiritual elements of the crossing, Zemeckis totally loses the natural tension that the feat proposes. Yet Zemeckis handles the crossing with a great respect and reverence, Gordon-Levitt showing Petit becoming a showman on the wire, becoming who he always wanted to be but unfortunately it is just not enough to sustain the film.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very convincing as Petit, once you get past the change of eye colour, the prosthetic nose and the French accent. He portrays Petit as a charming and affable person, but also someone wholly concerned with realising his dream of crossing between the towers. If he did not have this bold and sometimes boorish focus then he most certainly would not have crossed between the towers at all. He plays Petit with a childlike enthusiasm for wire walking but also shows Petit had his own doubts – his first viewing of the Twin Towers is met with cries of “impossible” but chance, as so often is the case, intercedes and Petit’s courage is replenished. He dreams big and circus routines are just not enough for him – his frustration at those early crossings when he is suspended only a few feet above the ground is counter balanced by his emotional reaction and attachment to the high wire between the Twin Towers. Petit changes as the film moves along, pushing him closer to this nirvana state he craves, something he will only find in “the void” on the wire. He is truly remarkable and Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a brilliant performance as Petit.
While various elements of the film do not gel, Zemeckis does excel, unsurprisingly, in his stunning visuals. If you were not afraid of heights before this film, you might think differently afterwards. A director gifted with understanding not only how to compose a film but also how technology can compliment film, in the closing half hour Zemeckis gives The Walk the injection of drama and tension it badly needs when Petit sets foot on the wire. If ever a film needed 3D to be told then The Walk is it and where 3D can often be a gimmick, it is a necessary tool here to tell this story. Unfortunately it takes an hour and a half to get to this point – The Walk really only takes off when the crossing begins and in some ways you feel that this was the part of the film that Zemeckis really wanted to shoot (much like the crash sequence in Flight), he just needed to get through an hour and a half of back-story to get us there.
Sadly The Walk is an unremarkable film about a truly remarkable event. It is not a terrible film, not by any stretch of the imagination but, in the whole, it does not do justice to Petit. The Walk needed a gritty, hard 1970’s feel to it as opposed to a 1960’s light-hearted caper/romp to make it special. Yet in some ways it is, as The Walk serves as a love letter to the beauty and majesty of the Twin Towers, ending with a very poignant and heartfelt tribute. It is hard to watch this film and not think of their absence in the New York skyline. The Walk succeeds in reminding the audience of the Twin Towers as something special, something wonderful. For that Zemeckis deserves immense credit.
The Walk is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.
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