On the 7th of August, 1974, Philippe Petit spent forty-five minutes walking and performing back and forth on a hire wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City.
That anyone would attempt this is an insane proposition, never mind laying down on the wire, or bowing to the people on the street below – who would have required years of therapy if he had come splattering down in front of their awed faces.
Thankfully, he didn’t. And so we have this strangely beautiful recreation of his triumph to behold, forty-one years later, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt – a revelation – as Philippe.
The Walk is devoid of the fatalistic cynicism that one could easily ascribe to the story of a man who decides to walk between two hundred-plus story buildings to satisfy his artistic pretensions; nor is it simply a technical feat bereft of the humanity that drove it. The Walk is a character driven film, and that Phillipe is such a vibrant character – temperamental, arrogant, but also introspective and warm – is what helps make ‘the walk’ itself so satisfying when it happens.
The film follows Philippe’s life from a meagre street performer in Paris, whose aspirations rapidly mount when he sees a picture of the nascent Trade Centre towers in a magazine. He learns the tricks of the highwire craft from circus ringmaster Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), while simultaneously recruiting a motley band of accomplices – including his girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon); a photographer; a pawn-shop dealer; an insurance salesman; and two stoners – to help him realise his gargantuan goal of first penetrating, and then walking between the New York landmarks.
Essentially, the New York portion of The Walk is a caper film, a delightful one in which no one gets robbed. It is incredibly fascinating to see how a feat like this is/was staged and prepared for, how much work it takes/took, and how much exacting attention to detail is/was required to illegally mount a highwire cable with just a couple of hands between two immense buildings.
That those two buildings are the now departed World Trade Centre towers lends the entire film an elegiac sense of poignancy. They are recreated in eerily realistic detail, the gravitas of which is indubitable. They are the unspoken and overwhelming stars of Zemeckis’ film, shining brightly at their beginning before hurtling towards an inevitably catastrophic future. But the visual brilliance of The Walk reaches its apex in the titular moment, which is as terrifying as it is exhilarating, and ultimately celebratory.
This is a film which, if any, deserves to be seen on a ridiculously large screen in full 3D to be fully appreciated. That it is inextricable from its medium means both that it makes the best of that medium and that it will suffer when viewed in the future on smaller screens. Nevertheless, it is a fine example of how 3D can add, rather than subtract, to the experience of a film, enhancing the effect of the story and not added as a needless appendage.
Still, strip the technology away, and The Walk doesn’t fall apart, because its storytelling is solid and its pathos is rich, and Gordon Levitt is perfect in the role of a lifetime. The Walk is a spectacular testament to human achievement.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10