Approximately twelve men have walked on the surface of the moon, but only one man has walked a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. In 1974 Frenchman Phillippe Petit spent some 45 minutes 100 floors above the street, without a safety harness, enthralling New Yorkers who had gathered below.
Petit’s audacious feat was the subject of James Marsh’s Oscar winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Marsh treated the material almost like a thriller as he depicted the subterfuge employed by Petit and his crew to smuggle all of the necessary equipment into the World Trade Towers after hours. In The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis (the Back To The Future trilogy) gives us a dramatised account of Petit’s achievement, but he still maintains that enjoyable caper movie vibe as Petit has to avoid security guards while rigging his cables.
The action unfolds from Petit’s perspective as we first meet him atop the Statue of Liberty. We get plenty of background on Petit, from his early fascination with tightrope walking to his early years as a street performer in Paris. But when he read a newspaper report on the construction of the World Trade Centre and its two towers which were at that stage the tallest structures in the world, he became obsessed with walking a tightrope between them. It took nearly six years of dedication, and planning to pull off the feat. An early rehearsal walk with a wire walk between the spires of Notre Dame ended in his arrest. For his biggest achievement though Petit had to gather around him a motley crew of allies and accomplices who were willing to risk jail to help him achieve his dream.
Zemeckis has always been fascinated with special effects and CGI and has pushed the enevelope in films like Forrest Gump and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with its ground breaking mix of live action and animation, and he has also pioneered motiona capture techniques for The Polar Express and Beowulf. The Walk boasts some of the best and most effective use of 3D yet in a mainstream movie.
But there was no actual footage of Petit’s daring walk, which was one of the main drawbacks to Marsh’s film. Here Zemeckis recreates that dramatic walk with the aid of some state of the art CGI and visual effects.
While Petit is strutting the wire, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s camera pans across the New York skyline giving us some impressive vistas, but it’s when the camera looks down towards the ground some 1360 feet below that the effect is truly felt and it gives us a sense of great depth. The Walk is a visceral experience like no other. The 3D is so realistic that it is unnerving, and has apparently induced fits of vertigo, and even had patrons throwing up in cinemas in America.
Zemeckis has cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role of Petit, and he is perfect as the actor brings plenty of charm, cheeky enthusiasm, energy, a dogged determination and arrogance combined with a childlike demeanour to his engaging performance. And he also speaks fluent French! Ben Kingsley brings gravitas, and a confusing array of accents, to his small role as Papa Rudy, a legendary circus aerialist and Petit’s brusque mentor, and Charlotte le Bon plays his devoted girlfriend Annie Allix. Actors like James Badge Dale and Ben Schwartz are wasted in thin and underdeveloped roles as Petit’s support crew.
The Walk is also something of a love letter to the former twin towers which dominated the New York skyline for over 25 years, and the final shot of the iconic towers rising majestically and bathed in golden sunlight is a fitting homage to them.
If you don’t have a head for heights then it might be better to check out the 2D version of the film as it may not be quite so vertiginous.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley and Charlotte Le Bon
Release Date: 15 October, 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television