By Daniel Lammin
11th October 2015

The incredible tale of high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his wire walk between the buildings of the World Trade Centre in 1974 is one of the most thrilling true stories of our time. It’s one of those tales that’s so unbelievable and audacious that you couldn't make it up: a man defying logic and safety to push himself and create a moment of true beauty in the most unlikely of places. Petit’s act of artistic anarchy has already been immortalised in his book ‘To Reach The Clouds’ and in the remarkable Oscar-winning documentary ‘Man on Wire’ (2008), and now acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis turns his cinematic eye towards the skies with ‘The Walk’, using all the tools at his disposal to place us up with Petit as he commits his great act and walks 110 storeys above the ground.

The film follows Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the moment he first sees an image of the Twin Towers in a magazine in 1968, to his execution of his daring stunt at the top of the barely completed buildings. With the tutelage of experienced wire-walker Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and his dedicated recruits led by his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), he begins to prepare for the highly illegal and life-threatening walk, all the while averting any attention that could get him in trouble and foil his dream for good.

Zemeckis’ films have always been distinct because of their energy, humour and cartoonish quality, and ‘The Walk’ fits very neatly next to the best films of his career. Using the ins-and-outs of Petit’s planning and execution, he and co-writer Christopher Browne fashion the story into a zippy, wildly entertaining heist film, matching the irreverent tone of its protagonist and narrator. It’s almost the story of Petit’s walk told in the style of a classic Disney film, and while this is at first a tad startling (especially when this kind of sunny optimism isn’t common in film anymore), once the film finds its footing with its tone, it completely whips you up in it. In terms of structure, its only real stumble is the framing device of Petit as narrator. Though it does occasionally offer us valuable insight into Petit’s motivations, it often intrudes on moments where it shouldn’t and ends up telling as opposed to showing. Much like the tone, the narration eventually becomes part of the fabric of the film. Once Petit and his team begin the coup itself, it’s remarkable how quickly the experience of the film shifts from one thoroughly engaging to immensely thrilling.


As expected from a director as technically-minded and daring as Zemeckis, the film is a visual marvel, using all the tools available to make ‘The Walk’ as much an experience as entertainment. There have been a lot of advancements in technology in cinema over the past decade, but ‘The Walk’ is one of the few films that uses those advancements in the service of storytelling and experience rather than gimmick. It also helps that Zemeckis’ collaborators are as exemplary as they are. Dariusz Wolski’s camera zips and flies through both the intimacy of Petit’s relationships and preparations and the grand canvas of both Paris and New York, punctuated by Jeremiah O’Driscoll’s bouncy editing and Alan Silvestri’s wonderful jazz score. Zemeckis has always been the most energetic of entertainers, and he handles the tone with great surety. After the messiness and lack of focus that ruined his previous film ‘Flight’ (2012), it’s great to see him returning to such rich material that plays to his strengths as a storyteller.

The performances are just as assured. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a wonderful Petit, pull of charm and erupting with energy and physically present. Part of me wonders whether it would have been better played by a French actor, but nothing is lost in his performance. The wordiness of the narration occasionally makes his performance a tad overwhelming, but where he is at his strongest is where words fall away and he’s allowed to show rather than tell. The supporting cast are all wonderful, especially Le Bon and Cesar Domboy as accomplice Jeff who is terrified of heights, but this is Gordon-Levitt’s film, and while the faults in the screenplay hold him back, he still has room to demonstrate his tremendous talents.

The film is a visual marvel, using all the tools available to make ‘The Walk’ as much an experience as entertainment.

However, the moment Petit takes his first step onto the wire, ‘The Walk’ becomes something truly special. Zemeckis’ recreation of the walk itself is spectacular, capturing its delicate magic and power and filling us as observers with immense awe. It’s not often that the use of 3D earns more than a passing comment, but here it becomes part of the storytelling itself, placing you on the wire and in the air around Petit. The act itself is breathtaking enough, but adding the depth of field and sense of height make it more immediate and thrilling. All the elements of film come together for this sequence that’s equal parts terrifying, uplifting and deeply emotional, allowing us for the most precious of moments to understand what makes a man attempt such a seemingly impossible feat. By walking onto the wire, Petit embraces the enormity and beauty of life and flies defiantly in the face of death - a word he refuses to use, an act all the more powerful now that the stage he chooses to perform will one day be torn down in an act of violence and hate. Zemeckis and his team are acutely aware of this, and every step of the walk is imbued with the weight of that history to come. It’s an incredible and passionate piece of filmmaking that enhances everything wonderful about the film and almost makes up for its flaws. If there’s one reason to see ‘The Walk’, the titular moment is it.

I remember the first time I heard Petit’s story in ‘Man on Wire’. It set my imagination on fire, the idea that someone would risk their life so radically for a genuinely heartfelt artistic pursuit. It’s one of those stories I hold very dear to my heart, and it’s clearly one that is as dear to Robert Zemeckis. I couldn’t stop crying in the final 20 minutes, realising I was seeing an event I would have given anything to go back in time and see for myself. ’The Walk’ has a kind of old Hollywood romanticism that could only work in Zemeckis' hands, sentimental and idealistic and wonderfully ambitious. It’s as crazy and flawed as the man it depicts, and while that kind of optimism and irreverence might not hit with everyone, I found it an immense joy. ‘Man on Wire’ might still be the definitive cinematic account, but ‘The Walk’ does something special all on its own - it puts you front row and centre for the greatest artistic crime of our time.

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