By Chaz Lipp
Taken purely at face value, Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk is a wildly entertaining film with a wallop of a finale. After the absolute travesty of Flight, the worst film Zemeckis has ever directed by a wide margin, he’s returned with a real treat. In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit spent 45 minutes on a wire stretched between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. His stunt, accomplished with the assistance of a ragtag crew of assorted eccentrics, was accomplished illegally. The towers were then brand new with still-incomplete interiors. Occupants were only just starting to move in to fill the lower floors. Petit himself is a true ‘larger than life’ personality and The Walk is based on his 2002 memoir To Reach the Clouds. All the ingredients are present for a satisfying cinematic experience.
If there’s any problem, it’s that someone else had already mixed those ingredients. Petit’s story has been told – and told very well, in fact. The 2008 documentary Man on Wire was the first film to frame Petit’s quest to walk between the Towers as a heist thriller. Director James Marsh had access to the real Petit, who is such a gloriously endearing oddball that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was facing a nearly impossible task in recreating his every move. Man on Wire, winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary that year, throttles forward with a rush so palpable it feels almost like a work of fiction (too weird, too unbelievable to be true – but of course it is).
However, there’s one thing Man on Wire does not have: actual filmed footage of Petit achieving his “coup” (as he called it). We see breathtaking still photos of the artist suspended some 1,300+ feet about the ground. But there’s a hint of anti-climax in not seeing some moving images of the feat.
In a way, that’s why Zemeckis’ film even exists. You can almost picture the director and his co-producers, immediately following a screening of Man on Wire, enthusing about how today’s effects could potentially put Petit back on the wire and allow the audience to be up there with him. Zemeckis clearly takes his cues from the trail blazed by Marsh in the ’08 documentary. And for the most part it all works, allowing us to get caught up in Petit’s fervor as he progresses in his tight-rope walking career, challenging himself to greater accomplishments as he eyes his ultimate goal. Ben Kingsley is fine in a supporting roles as Petit’s teacher, Papa Rudy. Charlotte Le Bon does what she can as Petit’s love interest. But the movie isn’t all that interested in supporting characters, unless you count the Towers themselves. Which is certainly fair to do.
Looming large over the Manhattan skyline, the very sight of the Twin Towers spurs such strong emotional reaction that The Walk has an entirely subliminal layer of complexity. I’ve seen some reviewers who feel that Zemeckis laid on the spectre of 9/11 too thickly. I don’t understand how that could be, considering there is absolutely no direct reference or even real implication of the Towers’ eventual fate. What Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Christopher Browne have done is crafted a love letter to pre-9/11 New York – pre-9/11 America, by extension – without drawing any attention to the fact that the buildings are no longer there. Only in that bygone era could Petit and his crew have even conceived of pulling off such a dangerous, unlawful, but ultimately benign and artistic stunt.
Perhaps The Walk serves as something of a cinematic Rorschach test. When I first saw the trailer, boasting of the 3D IMAX experience, it almost felt exploitative – as if Zemeckis might be trampling on hallowed ground for the sake of an “event movie.” But the emotions generated by The Walk‘s final moments, during which Petit’s concluding voiceover veers closest to an acknowledgment of the Towers’ absence, felt very real and wholly earned.