Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine
On August 7, 1974, French aerialist Phillippe Petit walked on a high wire suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It was an illegal act, not sanctioned by New York City or the Port Authority, and Petit was subsequently arrested. However, it was also a galvanising and unifying moment, one that helped cement the then-controversial WTC into the continuing mythology of the Big Apple.
There was a great documentary a few years ago – James Marsh’s Man On Wire – and the end result of Petit’s ambitious plan is a matter of record – the film is called The Walk, after all, not The Splat. Still, The Walk is worth your time. Like Marsh before him, director Robert Zemeckis, working from Petit’s memoir To Reach The Clouds, frames the illicit art stunt as a caper, detailing Petit’s recruitment of a motley band of accomplices and careful plotting of what is, if you squint, a burglary where nothing is stolen.
We probably should stop calling Joseph Gordon-Levitt a rising star, since he’s been around for ages now, but his career still seems to be on a ceaseless upward trajectory, so I guess we might be stuck with that lazy shorthand for a while. He’s an effortlessly engaging lead here, addressing the camera directly to tell his story in a way that’s, yeah, self-aggrandising, but also irresistibly charming. Gordon-Levitt’s Petit is a pie-in-the-sky dreamer who just really, really loves being on the high wire, and it’s his boundless enthusiasm that allows him to draw a collection of French bohemians and New York drop-outs into his plot.
Zemeckis keeps things light and amiable for the bulk of the film, taking us through Petit’s youth, his study under old circus hand Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley rummaging through his big box of accents) and his romance with soulful busker Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). Then we’re off to a vision of ’70s New York that’s just a bit too on the nose, the period detail a little too self aware and over-designed, but it’s hard to complain when James Badge Dale and Ben Schwartz come onto the team.
The centerpiece of the whole affair is, of course, Petit’s walk, and you might wonder how the film manages to make that suspenseful – it is, after all, just a bog-standard circus act, right? It’s worth remembering, though, that Zemeckis has spent the last decade or two becoming perhaps the most technically accomplished filmmaker this side of James Cameron, and it feels like all his work over that time culminates in this one sequence. Zemeckis was an early adopter of the current wave of 3D and while his initial experiments – if you can call big budget, wide release tentpole films “experiments” – were hit and miss, he knows how to deploy the technique to the best effect, and the best effect is demonstrating just how dizzying a tight rope walk between the Twin Towers is.
The sequence is downright vertiginous; in the press screening I was in, seasoned critics gasped and moaned as the camera swooped around Petit’s lithe figure on the wire, and if that’s not a testament to impact of the scene, I don’t know what is. Yes, we know he doesn’t fall, but Zemeckis bypasses that knowledge and grabs the viewer by the limbic system, making the possibility of a plummeting death a visceral truth if not an actual one. It’s a bravura, hats-off display of filmmaking nous.
Of course, one inescapable truth about the World Trade Centre is that it’s simply not there any more, and that fact lends the film an undercurrent of wistful sadness. The Walk is dedicated those who died on 9/11, but Zemeckis never lets the film itself lean too far into that tragic element of the Towers’ history, understanding perhaps that the audience’s own knowledge of what is to come colour the depicted events for them. The Walk is a tribute, not a dirge, and a good one at that.