The man who gave the Twin Towers their soul

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The Walk (PG). Director: Robert Zemeckis. Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 123 minutes

One of the most entertaining documentaries of the past decade, James Marsh's 2008 feature Man On Wire, took the historical achievements of an eccentric French acrobat and turned them into something resembling a mystically imbued action-heist film. Aside from the sheer magnitude of the film's centrepiece — Philippe Petit's 1974 walk on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in New York City — Marsh found in Petit a fascinating central character, full of shades and contradictions; while the logistics involved with plotting and rigging the feat made for utterly gripping viewing.

It was only a matter of time before someone in Hollywood attempted to remake the story as big-budget spectacle. And what better man for the job than Robert Zemeckis. His CV, which spans three decades and includes such esteemed entries as the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Cast Away and The Polar Express, is that of a proven mainstream auteur; a technical innovator and cinematic storyteller with Oscar credentials and a mass-audience-friendly creative voice. True to form, The Walk is not perfect, but you'll not have many more immersive, breathtaking experiences at the multiplex this year.

Its greatest achievements, like Petit's, are technical. As captured in both Man On Wire and now in The Walk, there was far more to Petit's performance than a casual walk on a wire suspended 110 storeys in the air. Petit (played in The Walk by Gordon-Levitt) and his team of accomplices, well aware of the illegality of what they were doing and the complex physical challenges of rigging a cable between two 400-metre-tall skyscrapers (let alone walking on it), spent months scheming in secret. On the day of execution, any number of unforeseen circumstances could and nearly did derail the intricate plot.

Zemeckis sets the stage in similary remarkable fashion, recreating tangibly the streets of 1970s Paris (where Petit cut his teeth as a street performer) and later of 1970s Manhattan. The Twin Towers themselves are conjured up in concrete detail from a combination of meticulous physical sets and CGI. Forget illegal downloads on your home PC — this is a film that is worth forking out to see on the biggest screen you can find, and in 3D to boot. When Petit first arrives at the vertiginous brink of one tower and gazes across to the other, you will feel like you are right there with him. Acrophobics beware.

The film is as light and jazzy and audience-friendly as Alan Silvestri's score — not always to its credit. Where Man On Wire gained profundity from the real-life Petit's existential ruminations, his fictional counterpart's whining about art and beauty come across as frivolous. The documentary had other layers, too, revealing the supreme egotism of a man who, in the wake of the World Trade Center walk, blithely parted ways with two friends whose support had been key to his success. By contrast The Walk plays the character's blatant jerkiness mostly for laughs, or glosses over it altogether.

That said, Gordon-Levitt's physical embodiment of the lithe and nimble Frenchman is impressive (iffy accent notwithstanding), and there is the occasional moment of emotional honesty. During one nailbiting sequence, Petit responds with tenderness to an acrophobic accomplice, as the two hide from a security guard for hours in an elevator shaft. Such human moments ultimately resonate more than the film's on-the-nose Americanism — Gordon-Levitt's Petit narrates the story from a perch on the Statue of Liberty, and closes the film with a none-too-sutble tribute to the now fallen Twin Towers themselves.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Walk, Robert Zemickis, Philippe Petit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, film review

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks Tim, from an acrophobic. I recommend too the treatment of the event in Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, which won the 2011 IMPAC Prize, a prize in which the "judges" are ordinary library borrowers.
Frank | 15 October 2015


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