With The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis takes a larger-than-life true story and tells it in a larger than life way, to good effect. It’s the story of Phillipe Petit, a French highwire performer who, just as the World Trade Center was being completed in 1974, snuck up to the roof, strung a wire between the two towers, and walked across (and back … and across …) the chasm, 110 stories high.
Zemeckis employs an interesting narrative device. Petit, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, tells the story of his adventure directly to the camera, between scenes in which Levitt and company play out the tale. Petit the narrator stands atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty, with the twin towers standing impossibly in the background. It’s a charming bit of framing, with the narration helping Zemeckis keep the tale, which covers years, moving. And for those who don’t know Petit’s famous story, recounted of late in a book and documentary, it injects a subtle tension. Is the performer in this impossible position because he doesn’t survive the movie? Is it his ghost addressing us? It’s a nice touch in a movie that otherwise is about the adventure of the project rather than building tremendous tension around the performance itself.
The film is not without drawbacks. We never get much sense of character from Petit. The script gives us a boy who simply decided to be a street performer, for no expressed reason, and who decides to undertake the insanely impossible quest of his World Trade Center operation. The film gives us a man committed to his “art,” and we simply must accept that attractive idiosyncrasy. But accept it we do. This is a film about art without the irony quotes, and the way Zemeckis portrays the actual execution of that impossible walk pays off the artist’s underexplored madness.
Which is to say, the special effects are stunning, and make this definitely a film to be seen in the theater. The beginning scenes, recounting Petit’s youth, training and early days as a Parisian street performer, have a deliberate unreality. For instance, Petit rides his unicycle through a Paris that is a sepia-toned black-and-white, except for flashes of color that call out the artificiality of the effect. Yet when we get to the ultimate wire walk, with the camera swinging over the skyline of a New York from decades ago, at dizzying heights, I can scarcely imagine it having felt more real.
There’s a moment … As Petit prepares to step onto the wire for the first time, at dawn, a passing cloud of sun-kissed white makes the city, the far tower, and the wire itself vanish. The moment Petit puts his weight on the cable, it all returns, and his death-defying stunt begins. It’s a breathtaking moment, and as the scene continues, the tension is not the monster-movie fear that a slasher will jump out of a dark corner, but a sort of giddy squeamishness at Petit’s daring.
By having Philippe serve as raconteur, holding forth from his perch atop Lady Liberty’s torch the way he might over several bottles of wine and a long, delightful meal, Zemeckis ups the genial pleasure of the film but perhaps kills some of the drama. There’s not much edge to the story, which I don’t mind at all, but some viewers might have preferred treating this as more a straight caper film than a “Did I ever tell you about the time …” story.
This story could have been shot like a bank heist, an Ocean’s 11 caper, or a spy fillm, all danger and ticking clocks, but what Zemeckis creates is a much more enjoyable way to experience this particular story. The telling of the tale captures the elan of the event, the era, and Petit himself.