Performance artists have done a lot of audacious things in the name of art or to make a statement of some sort, whether personal or political, but high-wire artist Phillippe Petit will forevermore remain on the list for his daring and illegal stunt of running a steel cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and crossing the void on the wire on August 7, 1974. Tempting death makes for compelling drama and director Robert Zemeckis shows a deft hand turning this stunt into a surprisingly engaging and entertaining (and yes, occasionally breath-taking) story in The Walk.
With a sly, driven Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, the film uses the unusual structure of having Petit narrate the story from atop the Statue of Liberty, with the World Trade Center rather eerily in the background. Petit was fascinated by the high wire and the circus from a very young age and rather than head to college, he joined the circus to master the craft of tightrope walking from wizened old Polish maestro Papa Rudy (a pleasantly understated Ben Kingsley).
Petit meets and falls in love with street singer Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) and when he sees an architectural rendering of the Twin Towers, she encourages him to follow his dream of walking across them, 110 stories above the ground. Along the way he and his official photographer friend Albert (Ben Schwartz) practice by rigging a high wire across the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Heading from Paris to New York City, Petit needs “accomplices” for his daring crime and assembles a motley gang including shop owner Jean-Peierre (James Badge Dale), math teacher with a crippling fear of heights Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy) and oh-so-70’s attorney Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine). Months of preparation are required to figure out how to get the wire across the towers at night and get all the equipment required to the top of both towers so Petit can accomplish this extraordinary feat.
On August 7, 1974 at 7:00am, Philippe Petit did indeed walk across his steel cable from one of the World Trade Center towers to the other. And back. And back again, as NYC police appeared to arrest him on the roof of both towers, an alarming 1362 feet above the ground.
With its 3D IMAX format, The Walk proves gripping and compelling, a tale of an obsessive artist who pursues his dream regardless of his own doubts, people telling him he’s crazy, and a non-stop series of obstacles that make the task considerably more difficult than anticipated. More than with most modern 3D films, however, Zemeckis also panders to the 3D format, having juggling pins, balls, arrows and even wire appear to rush towards the viewer.
But all is forgiven when Petit finally gets onto the famous wire and begins his walk across the towers. It’s beautiful, peaceful, and terrifying at the same time, and even though viewers know that he doesn’t fall from the wire, there are a few tense moments where audience members were leaning forward, silently entreating Petit to get off the wire and be done before he did slip and fall.
Having said all of that, there are still major problems with The Walk too. It’s an engaging story, but there’s much unsaid, most of the supporting characters are one-dimensional, and the relationship between Philippe and Annie is completely unexamined, making her barely a supporting character at all.
Zemeckis has the deft touch of an experienced cinematic storyteller, befitting his splendid oeuvre, but The Walk left me both exhilarated for the visuals and story of a maniacally-obsessed performing artist Philippe Petit and disappointed by the lack of any other exposition or exploration of the other people who helped him realize his high-wire dreams. See it in 3D for the thrills, and try not to feel giddy.