The Walk is now playing at the New York Film Festival.
Long before I lived in New York City, I visited the town of Rhapsody in Blue as a child. I still vividly recall my family’s pilgrimage from Times Square to Central Park, and from the Cloisters to Liberty Island. I was not able to reach the top of the Twin Towers since we were only here for several days, but the World Trade Center still loomed large in Lower Manhattan’s landscape and even larger in my imagination. For millions, including I suspect director Robert Zemeckis, the glistening spires evoked that same kind of majesty. I swore that I’d come back in a few years to climb that landmark; this was in the spring of 2000.
With his latest film The Walk, Zemeckis unapologetically attempts to reclaim that almost forgotten glamour the Twin Towers once possessed. As a result, this isn’t a biopic; it’s a grand studio attempt at realigning the popular imagination about two buildings from one of horror to something much more ethereal.
It is also the one element that most positively separates The Walk from the recent Oscar winning documentary based on the same subject, Man on Wire. Each film seeks to tell, with all their medium’s advantages, the story of how Philippe Petit, a French daredevil and tightrope artist, recruited a half-dozen accomplices into aiding a dream: to hang a high-wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and to then walk across it. Multiple times.
It was an act of craziness, talent, and mild corporate anarchism that was executed in 1974, before the Towers were even open, and which made international headlines. It was so gloriously bizarre a feat that even the city of New York just slapped Petit on the wrist, almost quietly thankful that he gave some colloquial color to those new, ultra-modern buildings.
As a film that explains the rationale for why Petit did what he did, or how the heist was fully implemented, The Walk falls short of the depth and drama of Man on Wire. Zemeckis said at a New York Film Festival press conference I attended that he began work on his film prior to that documentary’s release. Nevertheless, the James Marsh film still had the veracity of the tale fully unpacked before Zemeckis’ more romantic, and even insular, big budget narrative hit the big screen, complete with rosy first-person narration by Petit, who is played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with constantly-in-motion vitality (and a dubious French accent).
However what the Hollywood version might miss in the details, it makes up for in staggering romance for Petit’s journey and what it actually represented.
Essentially a heist film where Petit leads a crew into stealing a trip across the “void,” The Walk feels neither of our era or its 1970s setting. Despite some rather gnarly facial hair on most of the male actors, including James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, and César Domboy, and an overabundance of turtlenecks all-around, The Walk is as light and breezy as standing on the top of the South Tower observation deck—or more acutely at the epicenter of a 1950s Hollywood fantasy.
Indeed, Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit with so much joy and frantic French energy that he comes off as a mix between Gene Kelly and a younger Maurice Chevalier. While the real Petit was likely equally seductive since he went from being a street corner mime and juggler in Paris to convincing a large number of people to help him break a hundred New York City ordinances, there is something far simpler in his almost childlike enthusiasm here. As a result, Gordon-Levitt is perfect as this persona, even if his accent during the English speaking scenes is not (he does fine when he’s fully speaking French).
Gordon-Levitt also plays well with Charlotte Le Bon in the role of Annie Allix. Like Philippe, Annie is a Parisian street performer. But unlike Philippe, the very French Le Bon acts as an anchor of reality to both his fantasies as well as the movie’s overarching one, which seems to ensnare everyone else present.
The rest of the cast, including Ben Kingsley as Philippe’s mentor Papa Rudy, hits their marks, but they are primarily there to help sell Zemeckis’ magic trick. And that is the distinct difference between this film and Man on Wire, as well as the angle that allows The Walk to stand alone on its own tightrope. Once again, this is not a biopic; it’s a love letter to the Twin Towers, and much like the real-life Petit, Zemeckis is using his fictional version to create a sense of awe in his audience.
And that awe is exactly what the final 25 minutes of the film delivers. While I am rarely a proponent of 3D under any circumstance, the final moments of the movie where filmmakers use CGI to seamlessly create downtown Manhattan circa 1974 from the bird’s eye—and high-wire’s eye—of the Twin Towers is jaw-dropping in its depth. The details might be fuzzy, but the actual heist is breathlessly achieved with carefully calibrated tension by the director and his editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll.
Once on top of the wire with Philippe and an ever-growing crowd of police officers on each end of the crossing, the danger and serenity of Philippe’s stunt is presented in a way that only Hollywood budgets can achieve. Except rather than being about destroying buildings, it is about celebrating the monumental beauty of two that are missed.
It’s in these final moments that The Walk crosses over from being an entertainment to mastering its real goal: grasping a handful of that lost New York magic.