Relive a remarkable but vertigo-inducing achievement
You may already be familiar with the story of Philippe Petit thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.That film told the incredible true story of how the high-wire artist conceived, planned and pulled off his tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The original documentary plays almost like a heist movie except that the only thing Petit takes away is the viewers’ breath as they see him suspended 400 metres off the ground with absolutely no safety harness. The documentary is all the more poignant because of the ultimate fate of those particular buildings and, like any story related to the twin towers, it exists in the shadow of the terrible events of 9/11. The filmmakers never shy away from this, ending the film with a moving fade out of the towers themselves.Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis recreates those remarkable events in his latest film The Walk, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit - although the real stars are undoubtedly the digitally recreated twin towers. As you would expect from a ground-breaking director like Zemeckis, the film is a technological tour de force, so much so that the vertigo-inducing final twenty minutes rather overshadows the rest of the film. Petit’s tale is fascinating but much of The Walk covers facts and incidents that were better covered in the documentary, so the film ultimately is about putting the viewer up on that high-wire with the driven (some might say crazy) Frenchman.
The film was co-written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, with Petit narrating events from the lamp of the Statue of Liberty with downtown Manhattan and especially those iconic towers behind him. The use of a narrator does little to help distinguish The Walk from the earlier documentary but Gordon-Levitt delivers a charismatic central performance that helps carry the film towards its inevitable climax. The film admirably sticks to the truth and doesn’t try to elaborate on what is already an almost unbelievable story.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have issues, with the supporting cast lacking enough character to stand out against Gordon-Levitt and the towers themselves. There’s Ben Kingsley as the type of elder mentor that he can play in his sleep these days and James Badge Dale as one of the other accomplices. The remainder of the cast is largely composed of relatively unknown French or Canadian actors who play the rest of the team, with Charlotte Le Bon in the key role of Petite’s girlfriend Annie.
The use of actual French-speaking actors does rather highlight one of the other issues of the film, which relates to the accents and Gordon-Levitt’s in particular sounds very ‘Allo ‘Allo. To avoid using too many subtitles, which can be distracting in 3D, the film jumps back and forth between English and French, with the filmmakers using the excuse that the main characters want to practice their English as a way of justifying them not talking to each other in French all the time.
The Walk is a technological tour de force, putting you right out there with Petit on his wire.
There’s also probably too much back-story about Petit himself and the film would have been better if it had concentrated more on the walk itself. Ultimately the achievement can be seen as a metaphor for Petite’s entire life but the various flashbacks have a tendency to appear rather cliched, with a picture postcard version of early 70s France. It’s all shots of the Eiffel Tower, cafes, 2CVs, candles, table cloths, picnics and bottles of wine. In fact the only thing missing is a man in a beret and striped top riding a bicycle with onions strung around the handlebars.
Of course these minor complaints are largely redundant because the film is really all about that final walk and here it delivers in spades. The nature of Petit’s situation allows plenty of room for Zemekis to add directorial flourishes, sweeping his camera around Petit as he walks his tightrope at frightening altitudes. The effects and practical work are flawless, recreating the twin towers in all their glory and as Gordon-Levitt moves around on top of them and out on his wire, the audience often gasped. The sound design plays an important part as well and The Walk is one of those rare films that was actually shot in native 3D. So unless you genuinely suffer from vertigo, try and watch the film the way it was intended to be seen, the experience is truly breathtaking.
When Petit made his walk, the twin towers had only just been finished and at the time New Yorkers didn’t like the rather boring nature of their design. That seems hard to believe in light of later events but the film suggests that Petit’s antics gave the buildings a soul and afterwards New Yorkers embraced them. In light of his achievement he was awarded a free pass to the observation deck of the World Trade Centre which had an expiration date of forever. Sadly, as we found out one fateful day in September, nothing lasts forever but experiencing Petit's walk in such a visceral way will stay with the viewer long after leaving the cinema.
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