"A masterful re-creation of the 1974 tightrope stunt on the Twin Towers.”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk. Based on Petit’s 2002 memoir To Reach the Clouds, the film is a cinematic imagining of the French high-wire walker’s inspiring coup between the 110-story high Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974.
The first half of the film occurs in France where street performer Philippe (Gordon-Levitt) fascinates the crowd with his juggling acts and wire-walking. His interest in the craft stretched a long way back when he was still eight years old and first witnessed a tightrope act in a circus run by Czech funambulist Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). It is while he is in the waiting room of a dental clinic when he sees a photo of the Twin Towers in a magazine. He is instantly enthralled and decides it will be his mission to walk a tightrope between the two skyscrapers. As he prepares for the stunt, he gradually assembles his accomplices, including his guitar-strumming darling Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), and acrophobic and math whiz Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy). As a sort of practice, Philippe passes a wire between the twin belfries of Notre-Dame and walks on it but gets himself arrested in the process.
Finally, the team flies to America and meet new collaborators like mustachioed insurance broker Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine) who has an office high up in one of the Twin Towers, and fancy-talking electronics salesman J.P. (James Badge Dale) and his friends, amateur photographer Albert (Ben Schwartz) and stoner David (Benedict Samuel). Their plan is closely inspected but they still encounter several speed bumps along the way. But Philippe is determined and on the eve of August 7th, he successfully walks between the towers on tightrope for a total of six times, with the crowd cheering below and the police officers just waiting in the buildings.
The Walk is an overwhelming visual experience as it re-creates an inspirational event with much clarity, elaboration and realism. Director Zemeckis masterfully employs technology to achieve such feat, as well as fully developing its main protagonist. Indeed, Philippe is an infectious, moving and engaging character. He is funny, optimistic and ambitious. He always has big dreams and big guts, and his fascination with America has been constantly and subliminally depicted, such as the French-language version of his favorite jukebox classics. However, it is also this part of the film that feels draggy and sluggish. With no conflict going on, it seems longer than it really is.
The movie finally kicks in and comes to life during the second act when the team stages the event in New York. The preparations are surprisingly tense and tight, from recruiting people, doing their research, facing setbacks and encountering lucky breaks. Everything is planned with precision and careful eyes so the final execution is flawlessly winning. Philippe, happy and positive as always, tirelessly brings in joy, hope and encouragement. Even when he steps on a nail and limps around, he remains unwavering, letting nothing hinder or complicate his performance.
So when Philippe at last saunters on the cable, with only a balancing pole with him, it is a moment of exhilarating high. The film brings us to the thrill of the experience that we can feel our stomachs churn, sweats drop, and heads dizzying. It is all too surreal, complete with the sky’s great vista, the rustle of wind passing over his clothes, the sway and metallic creaks of the wires, and the stifled sound of traffic and amused crowd 110 stories below. It is not only a physical achievement but the movie makes us understand what he saw and heard and the sense of peace and liberty that he feels during the walk.
Undoubtedly, the feature excels with its digital re-creation not only of the exact moment but also of the early ‘70s Paris and Lower Manhattan. Except for the shot in the Statue of Liberty’s torch during the prologue, the rest of the film is impressively and exceptionally digitally pieced. Seeing the Twin Towers again also stirs feelings of nostalgia and sadness.
Aside from its slumbering first half, the movie is sometimes too talky. Intelligent chatters between characters are fine but the film is fully and painstakingly narrated by Philippe. It eventually becomes nuisance, especially when it interrupts the action and suspense. When the visuals are already effective in illustrating the physical environments and inducing appropriate emotions, do they have to be verbally explained? The narrations are counterproductive and they should have been trimmed down and done only when essential.
Gordon-Levitt has apparent troubles with French accent but with his bizarre wig and contacts and bubbly personality, he manages to deliver a convincing performance, especially as a professional funambulist. Supporting cast are also solid, particularly Kingsley who injects momentary humor and charm.
The Walk is really about Philippe Petit’s awe-inspiring tightrope stunt between the Twin Towers. Digital re-creations are topnotch and believable, as well as the performances of its cast. Zemeckis’ direction is brilliant but story-telling here needs to be more engrossing.
Production company: ImageMovers
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy, Benedict Samuel, Ben Schwartz. Steve Valentine, Mark Camacho
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne, based on Philippe Petit’s book, 'To Reach the Clouds'
Producers: Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke
Executive producers: Cherylanne Martin, Jacqueline Levine, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Visual effects supervisor: Kevin Baillie