They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
The same principle holds true for a 140-foot morning stroll across a wire suspended 1,360 feet above Manhattan.
Just ask daredevil Philippe Petit, who famously tightrope-walked the expanse between the two towers of the World Trade Center forty-one years ago.
Petit’s stunt was illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein in the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and wonderfully chronicled in the 2008 James Marsh documentary Man on Wire. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood waved its magic wand, transforming the Frenchman’s tale into a blockbuster worthy of the big screen.
Thankfully, said task fell upon the shoulders of Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away), a director renowned for his tasteful employment of eye-popping special effects in story-driven pictures—be they comedies, dramas, or actioners.
For The Walk, Zemeckis and his team (necessarily) relied on green screens and CGI to recreate Petit’s perilous dance across two landmark edifices that no longer exist. But the prudent filmmaker used practical effects wherever possible: To that end, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, 50/50) received months of high wire instruction from Petit himself, and practiced walking a cable connecting a pair of mockup rooftops.
Gordon-Levitt also learned to juggle and speak French to portray Petit’s eccentric Parisian street performer, and the first third of the film focuses on the cosmopolitan clown’s unicycle exploits and sleight-of-hand heroics in bustling public squares. Petit’s decidedly unprofitable vocation displeases his father, who kicks him out (“The carrots are cooked”), and his crowd-drawing demos prompt frequent intervention by nonplussed local constabulary.
“I don’t believe in permits,” says JGL’s mischievous protagonist.
Always on the lookout for a special place to hang his wire, Petite has an epiphany in the lobby of a dentist’s office: A magazine feature touts the near-completion of the monolithic World Trade Center towers in New York. It’s a dream “stage” for Petit, who envisions the structures strung together, himself traipsing the void between.
Petit takes tutelage from circus mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who imparts physics lessons on stress loads and tensile strength whilst underscoring humility—and the import of “complimenting” an audience with one’s skills. He also recruits “accomplices” for the New York subterfuge in the form of pretty busker Annie (Charlotte Le Bron) and “anarchist photographer” Albert (Ben Schwartz), who both share his artistic hubris.
Later, they enlist a hip pawnshop proprietor (James Badge Dale) and an insurance exec with an inside connection and insatiable rebel streak (Steve Valentine). A paranoid pothead and acrophobic immigrant inject humor and “everyman” empathy into the heist-like plotline.
We marvel as Petit preps for the Big Apple with backyard wire antics and a harrowing display at Notre Dame Cathedral. Tensions flare over the purpose, expense, and potential legal ramifications of the American adventure—but August 6th is selected as the date for the “coup.” Temperamental, obsessive Petit must be reminded to thank his friends for risking jail and deportation.
The group’s infiltration of The World Trade Center makes for some “teaser” white-knuckle moments, and the logistics of actually installing a wire across the chasm prove nearly insurmountable. Petit and his team masquerade as office employees, deliverymen, and architects in the course of their “spy work,” sneak tons of gear up 110 stories, and play hide-and-seek with night guards as precious hours tick away.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s most gripping moments come at sunup, when Petit takes to his line for awestricken hundreds of rush hour commuters below (and one can imagine the audience the adrenaline junkie might’ve commanded of today’s online culture, what with our mobile devices and YouTube additions). The digital effects are superlative—the camera angles dazzling and perspectives dizzying—and we never doubt that the North and South Towers are (or were) real, and that this affable maniac is sky-walking a quarter-mile over Long Island.
We experienced no small amount of trepidation visiting the Sears Tower a few years ago—and that was inside the building. Here, Zemeckis concocts several breathless sequences that toy with height, gawk at gravity, and defy death.
“Never say that word,” cautions Petit.
Alright—but if ever a film warranted the balance-displacing, optical assault (and premium prices) of 3D (on gigantic IMAX screen), this is it. Bow and arrows, birds, elevator shafts, and butter-fingered blunders make for a grab-bag of exclamatory (and vertigo-inducing) moments, and Petit literally loses his ordinarily instinctive footing after a run-in with a rusty nail. We were downright queasy watching the climax.
Petit makes the mistake of looking down. Fortunately, Zemeckis never loses sight of the passion behind the performance, and does as commendable a job of putting us in Petit’s head as he does taking us atop the towers. It’s a fun, fascinating ride, and easily the best based-on-true-events biopic since 127 Hours and Captain Phillips.
It wasn’t lost on us that JGL’s French acrobatic tells his story while perched atop the Statue of Liberty—Bartholdi and Eiffel’s gift to the United States on behalf of their native France. Beyond the iconic torch and across the Hudson Bay we behold the towers in their glory, glinting in digital sunlight as we process animated Petit’s skyscraper parable, too cognizant of their fates.
More than perfunctory tribute to pre-9/11 New York, The Walk is a cinematic salute to perseverance and a celebration of our lust for living, our need to explore and conquer. It’s a pulse-pounding homage to that irresistible, beautiful human impulse to trespass and burglarize boundaries and test our moxie if only for the thrill of it. The high.
Thirty years ago, Zemeckis invited us to fashion our own futures. Now he and Petit encourage moviegoers to find—and walk—their own “wires” in life.