Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Guillaume Baillargeon
Tag line: "Every dream begins with a single step"
Trivia: Philippe Petit himself personally trained Joseph Gordon-Levitt how to walk on a tightrope
Like many people, I was wowed by the Academy Award-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which told the incredible story of Phillippe Petit, the acrobat who, in 1974, strung a high wire between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, then staged one of the most death-defying stunts ever conceived by walking across it several times (without the use of safety equipment). The Walk, a 2015 film directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a dramatization of these same events, bringing to life both the tension and the exhilaration of this extraordinary achievement while, at the same time, paying tribute to the two buildings at the heart of it all.
It was in 1973 that Petit (Joseph Gordon Levitt) first learned about New York’s Twin Towers (which, at that point, were still under construction). His obsession with tightrope walking stretched back to his childhood, when, one night at the circus, he saw the White Devils, a high-wire family act headed up by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). Anxious to learn how to walk the wire himself, the brash young Petit eventually convinced Papa Rudy to train him, and was soon earning money on the streets of Paris, setting up his wire anywhere he could and performing for the passers-by. It was during this time that Petit met two of his future “accomplices”: Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), a street musician; and Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), a photographer and self-proclaimed revolutionary. Together, these three, along with a mathematician named Jeff (César Domboy), laid the groundwork for what would be the greatest tightrope display of all-time.
Once in New York, Petit and the others managed to recruit a few more accomplices, including American insurance salesman Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), who worked in one of the towers; and J.P. (James Badge Dale), a French expatriate who operated an electronics store. After rounding out the team with photographer Albert (Ben Schwartz) and a stoner named David (Benedict Samuel), Petit put his plan into motion, plotting out every detail, from how he and his cohorts would sneak to the top of the two towers (posing as deliverymen) to the manner in which they’d set up and test the tightrope, ensuring that it’s 100% safe for his history-making (and law-breaking) feat. If all went well, he’d take his first step “into the void” when the sun came up on August 6th. But, as with life itself, things rarely go according to plan, and Petit and the others must overcome several unexpected obstacles to pull off their grand, insane scheme.
One of the things that remained with me after watching Man on Wire was how energetic the real Petit was, and Zemeckis captures this exuberance in The Walk by way of a spirited cinematic style the he employs right from the get-go. After a brief introduction by Gordon Levitt’s Petit (delivered while standing atop the Statue of Liberty), the film flashes back to a year earlier, when he was performing for pedestrians on the streets of Paris. Shot in black and white (with occasional splashes of color thrown in) and accompanied by the catchy music of the time period (including Claude François’ French version of The Archies ‘60s hit “Sugar Sugar”), we follow Petit as he steers his unicycle past outdoor cafes, and exhibits his unique brand of entertainment for the masses. It’s a dynamic opening that also sets the stage for the excitement yet to come.
And that excitement, of course, comes courtesy of Petit’s nerve-racking high-wire acts, including an early performance at a small town fair (which ends badly), and his walk across Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral (another stylish sequence, with Zemeckis following Petit as he steps out onto the rope, only to swoop down to ground level a moment or two later, where we watch alongside the crowd that has gathered below). Though compelling, these initial walks are merely precursors for the main event, and even though we know ahead of time what’s going to happen, the scenes set atop the Twin Towers are as harrowing as they are invigorating.
The casting of American Joseph Gordon Levitt in the lead role may have seemed like an odd choice to some, but time and again in The Walk, the actor proves he was the right man for the job. Conveying his character’s vitality as well as his occasional arrogance (which is especially prevalent when Petit and the others are planning the walk), Gordon Levitt shows why he’s one of the more interesting young actors working in Hollywood today, and the fact the he’s a Francophile (a fan of Jean-Luc Godard’s, he often lists Alphaville and A Woman is a Woman among his favorite films) who speaks the language fluently brought an authenticity to his performance that shines through in practically every scene.
Along with Petit and his history-making exhibition, The Walk also pays homage to the Twin Towers, reminding us time and again just how imposing they were. During his first visit to New York, Petit made his way to the top of one of the towers and, to get a sense of what he’d be dealing with, stepped out onto a beam. But he didn’t stop there. “I had to dare to look down”, he tells us in his dual role as narrator, and it was at that point he knew what he was up against. “It’s impossible”, he said to himself, “but I’ll do it”.
An often thrilling, quite entertaining motion picture, The Walk is a loving tribute to a vibrant personality, an amazing stunt, and two buildings that aren’t there anymore.