Robert Zemeckis reaches dazzling new heights in "The Walk," which is based on the real life story of Philippe Petit's 1974 high wire performance between the World Trade Center towers.
Though he may be the first to deny it, director Robert Zemeckis has a lot in common artistically with the subject of his latest film “The Walk.” Based on the real life events of French high wire walker Philippe Petit and his journey in 1974 to string up a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and traverse the dangerous void in between them, the director and Petit are both, in their own way artistic daredevils.
It would be fictional and hyperbolic to even compare the mortal risks Petit took as a high wire performer to Zemeckis’ stage behind the camera. But in regards to scale and moral of his films, Zemeckis is a brother-in-arms with his high wire brethren. “The Walk” is a film that balances kinetic joy, artful control, and a love of the cinema all circled around one event: Petit’s historic walk. And in way, Zemeckis has been spending his whole career producing the stories of characters living while being caught between the immovable forces of the universe.
Starting with the “Back to the Future” franchise and running through “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away” and “Flight,” Zemeckis has constantly advanced the art form and special effects technology all the while fusing these advanced cinematic wonders in support of his overall narrative. That narrative, more often than not, has been the struggle of one man caught in between disparate and often critical points in his life: Marty McFly’s past and future; Roger Rabbit and Eddie Valiant’s real world and Toontown; Forrest Gump running through 20th century’s historic highs and lows; Chuck Noland crafting his way to survival on a deserted island; and Whip Whitaker fighting off addiction and alcoholism as a commercial airline pilot.
Even when he ventured into motion capturing animation in the early 2000s with “Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol,” it seemed that Zemeckis was experimenting and trying to find a new way to express himself. Celluloid wasn’t large enough to satiate his imagination.
Zemeckis, even when he fails or succeeds, is modern cinema’s greatest popular individualist.
And “The Walk” can be counted as one of the director’s success. Though it slogs through an overbearing exposition, the film captures not only the athletic prowess and concentration required in wire walking, but also creates cinematic magic through Petit’s perilous and iconic walk between the World Trade Center towers.
The film opens on Petit (played by a exuberant Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the puckish narrator addressing the audience from where he belongs: high above the clouds on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Behind him is his ultimate conquest, the Two Towers. And after 45 minutes of exposition, where we see Petit’s life as a struggling wire walker where he strolls the boulevards of Paris entertaining for change from tourists and passersby, he meets the first two accomplices to his final destination. The first is singer and art student Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) who offers constant support and love. And the second is the begrudging tutor and circus performer veteran Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley).
These two will help Petit accomplish what he calls his “coup” of hanging his wire in New York City. And along the way they recruit similar artistic anarchists like photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), bashful Jean-François (César Domboy) who is afraid of heights, Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine) who is a fan of Petit’s and an insurance salesman who works inside the World Trade Center, hippies Albert (Ben Schwartz) and David (Benedict Samuel), and the stand out among the wirewalking heist crew is Jean-Pierre (a charming James Badge Dale) who is a streetwise French electronics dealer who lives in New York City.
“The Walk” can be divided into three parts. The first being standard biopic expositon. The second a contagious heist thriller. The third being the walk itself, and in this third section Zemeckis creates an almost angelic ballet in the sky. His camera playfully rotates around the axis of the wire, Petit’s lifeline from death and oblivion as well as his path to glory and artistic salvation. Floating above the rim of the World Trade Center is the most devastatingly surreal experience in cinema this year. And when Petit gets comfortable and makes the space between the towers his home, there is a collective exhale and we experience fragile moment of true beauty.
The rest, as was illustrated in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” is history. Petit survives the walk. He is arrested immediately by a platoon of police officers. He is treated as an urban hero. Creates headlines across the world. And though he broke dozens of laws with his wirewalking performance, Petit faced no criminal punishment. He was ordered by a judge to perform for free in Central Park. And the owners of the then just built World Trade Center loved his performance and the free publicity so much that they gave him a lifetime pass to the building’s observation deck, so he could reflect and look out on New York City and be with the buildings he loves so much.
And if one could classify a fourth part of the “The Walk,” it would be the calm after Petit’s triumphal storm. The audience follows Petit for a quiet little moment between himself and the two towers. And then we return to Petit’s perspective as narrator up on Lady Liberty’s torch, the towers glowing with pride as the sun sets on New York City.
For most who were alive that day, the image of the towers in all their grandeur and immensity on and before September 11, 2001 most likely dominated their imaganitions before seeing this movie. Indeed, that was my biggest apprehension on first seeing the trailer for “The Walk.” How can someone make a movie centered around the World Trade Center without the horror and pain of that day dominating an audience’s thoughts? But somehow through Zemeckis' warm touch, Petit’s boundless energy, and Alan Silvestri’s compelling score, the towers aren’t ominous. They’re like Petit himself, joyous reminders of the human spirit.
And as the final moments pass and the light fades before the credits role, Zemeckis does his greatest display of time travel in just 20 seconds than he did in the whole “Back to the Future” franchise. The rest of the New York City skyspace fades into black as the World Trade Center glows ever brighter as it reflects the last glimmer of sunlight. And as the buildings wink back, one is transported to a time and a sensation of what it felt like before that fateful September day when everything changed. We get a chance to say goodbye to them one last time. And, more importantly, we get to reflect and remember who we were and where we were on that fateful day.