“Zemeckis does a wonderful job at blending drama with visuals”
Phillipe Petit shocked the entire world when he was seen walking on a high-wire cable, secured between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City during its construction. Over one-hundred stories above ground, walking on a wire barely an inch wide, Phillipe could’ve lost his balanced and plunged to his death at any second. However, that didn’t seem to be the story that spilled its way into the public; the focus was more on this unassuming Frenchman and his love for risking his life and facing his potential fate in a head-on, fearless manner. Petit believed, in a sense, that risking your life was the only way to know and feel that you were indeed alive.
Petit’s story has become widely known and discussed thank to Man on Wire, a fantastic 2008 documentary that outlines in detail the how and why of his fearless act. Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, however, is a well-made, thematically significant account of the events, told within the boundaries of a biopic that takes an introspective, fourth-wall-breaking look at how Petit accomplished what he did.
Petit is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stands atop The Statue of Liberty whilst telling this unfathomable story. From the first scene, showcasing Petit on the statue, one will immediately detect a strangeness in Gordon-Levitt’s French accent. The man who we recently saw proudly boasting and owning a full-bloodied Italian accent has now adopted a rather hammy French accent that occasionally treads the line of self-parody. This is the film’s first, and really only, obstacle; if you can get past this, your enjoyment of the film will likely be pretty high. If you can’t overlook this, I wish you the best one-hundred and twenty minutes.
The film follows Petit’s humble beginnings on the streets of France as a young troubadour, from performing as a street-mime and meeting Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), a singer who performs in the streets as well, who will eventually be an accomplice to his high-wire act in New York City, to becoming an ambitious wire-walker. He enlists in the help of Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a famous tightrope walker in the circus, who agrees to help him accomplish his dreams, albeit reluctantly so. The remainder of the latter half of the film concerns the extensive planning and development of Petit’s plan to walk the rope between the Twin Towers and subsequently carrying out his actions.
Audiences sold by the film’s series of daring and ambitious trailers may be shocked to note how much goes into the exposition of the buildup and around-the-clock planning of the walk itself. By the hour mark, I was beginning to question why Zemeckis, a known “visualist” in Hollywood, responsible for gems like Back to the Future and The Polar Express, was chosen to direct a film that was so narrative-driven. But then, as quickly as the film began, the scenes atop the World Trade Center did, and in a way, allowed the real film to finally start as a result. When one sees how magnificent and captivating the scenes surrounding Petit’s walk is when they’ll see Zemeckis’s artistic vision; it was an event so unspeakably tranquil yet suspenseful that I couldn’t help but feel my palms sweat. The way Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski – who intently focuses on clouds and atmospheric naturalism during the walk – wrap the audience up in the awe-inspiring risk and inherent danger that comes with this event makes the film transcend fiction in a way that has the ability to give audiences a real experience. So few films do that that it becomes petty to complain about something like the weakness of Gordon-Levitt’s accent.
On a thematic note, however, The Walk is a fascinating look at the ideas of optimism and courage that have ostensibly become interwoven in the fabric of American society of the years. The Twin Towers, in the film and in real-life, represented financial stability and international connectedness, and Zemeckis works to emphasize it in a way that spells out loving respect more-so than it does imminent disaster. The towers are viewed as a simple of untold bravery, much like Petit, and The Walk reminds us of a time period that still had the remainder of the world looking to America as a place of impossible achievement.
Zemeckis does a wonderful job at blending drama with visuals here, much like he did in his last film Flight, a brilliant drama that came unfairly branded as both a disaster film and a courtroom drama. With The Walk, Zemeckis takes empathy-inspiring visuals and themes of American exceptionalism and makes them function in a manner that is germane to the film’s inherent aura of wonder. If you want it broken down in a simplistic manner, however, its delightful cinematic qualities and breathtaking visuals justify the ticket-price.