Whether it really happened or was just turn-of-the-century PR spin, the story about the audience running away in panic from the film of an approaching train at an 1896 Lumière brothers screening is an irresistible one. Not because it lets us smirk at the naiveté of the past, but as the first instance of an audience colluding in cinema’s essential lie.
If those Parisians ran away from a flickering black and white image soundtracked only by the clack-clack-clack of the projector, they didn’t do it for self-preservation; they did it as willing players in a thrilling game. The train wasn’t real. They knew the train wasn’t real. And yet, perhaps, they ran.
A century and change later, visual effects pioneer Robert Zemeckis has pulled the same impressive stunt. In The Walk, his version of the 1974 true story of Frenchman Philippe Petit walking a high-wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, he tells the cinematic lie so convincingly and with such clever control it’s dizzying. You know it’s not real. You know you’re in no danger. Tell that to your quickening pulse and lurching stomach.
Ask Zemeckis what distinguishes his film, which has been a decade in the pipeline, from Man On Wire, James Marsh’s celebrated 2008 documentary on the same subject, and he’ll say it’s a matter of perspective. The documentary tells the story of Petit’s feat. The Walk lets you live it.
That’s no empty boast. The film’s wire walk, viewed in 3D on an IMAX screen, puts you right up there on a ¾ inch diameter cable over a thousand feet in the air. It’s every bit as astonishing and unnerving as that sounds. The audience I saw it with may not have run out in panic, but judging by the audible gasps around the screening, the effect of Zemeckis’ wizardry was being keenly felt. This is fairground attraction film-making, expertly created to transport us somewhere unimaginable and loan us its thrills.
Because The Walk is a film and not a theme park simulator, however, needs must have a story. Petit’s is a comic drama about his childhood obsession with wire-walking, his twin towers fixation, and his attempt to achieve his lofty dream with the people he engages along the way as “accomplices”. They include Charlotte Le Bon as Philippe’s devoted art student girlfriend, Annie, Sir Ben Kingsley as Czech high-wire patriarch, Uncle Rudy, Clément Sibony as photographer Jean-Louis, César Domboy as vertigo-sufferer Jean-François, James Badge-Dale as affable New Yorker JP, and Ben Schwarz and Benedict Samuel as deadbeat stoners Albert and David.
It’s a heightened, almost cartoonish tale of what the French might call poetic ambition, the Americans might call dogged determination, and the English: cockiness. It’s told in flashback and narrated with a with a wink and a smile by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a Parisian accent, turtleneck and high-waisted trousers.
Gordon-Levitt bubbles with vim as Petit, creating a more likeable character than the documentary documented. (The matter of Petit abandoning his friends and girlfriend for casual sex with a high-wire groupie immediately after pulling off “le coup” is—not at all curiously—left out.) Gordon-Levitt’s Petit is funny rather than off-putting in his egotism, a raconteur with a romantic dream.
Unlike Zemeckis’ best-known title protagonist, Forrest Gump, Petit narrates his story not to a stranger on a park bench, but direct to the audience. This was the film’s solution for keeping us informed about the inner workings of Petit’s mind while he planned and executed his stunt. It’s not always a success. The to-camera intrusions are often unwelcome, especially when the story hits its heist caper stride (a variety of equipment and people had to be smuggled into both towers to set up the walk) and we’d rather stay in the action than listen to Petit describe it.
Another couple of bizarre moments break the flow of the film’s genuinely astounding climax, one symbolic, the other mysterious. It’s as if the movie gets swept up in the romanticism of Petit’s unlikely dream at these times, resulting in one particularly ponderous incursion by a seagull.
None of that though, nor the caricatures, nor the contrived explanation for why everyone is speaking English all the time, nor the interruptions of Joseph Gordon-Kaye-Levitt, get in the way of the film’s dizzying achievement, which is a conjuring trick of the highest order. Simply put, it lets you walk in the sky. Where else can you do that and come out smiling?
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.