Focusing on one amazing real-life incident which did happen around the top of the Twin Towers of World Trade Center, “The Walk” tries to take you to that very moment of danger and wonder to behold, and it accomplishes its goal – to some degrees. On the technical level, its climax part is so real and vivid that it ignited my aversion to high places during the screening. On the narrative level, it is distractingly overdone right from its first act, and then it manages to accumulate some dramatic momentum around its middle act, and then it does deliver its centerpiece as promised during its final act.
In the morning of August 6th, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit did a remarkable stunt at the World Trade Center, and it was certainly the day which would not be forgotten by him or many others who happened to be around there. Without any permission from local authorities, he and his colleagues sneaked into the Twin Towers in advance and then prepared the stage for him, and he successfully walked along a metal wire put between the rooftops of the Twin Towers while many New Yorkers looked at him with astonishment and amazement from the ground. His miraculous story was already told in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008), and I still remember well how enthusiastic and energetic Petit was as he talked about his unstoppable urge and ambition behind that daring attempt with enormous life-threatening risk. (“If I die, what a beautiful death!”)
In the movie version, which is based on Petit’s book “To Reach the Clouds” like the aforementioned documentary, Petit is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the first part of the movie broadly describes Petit’s life before his stunt of lifetime. Even when he was young, Petit already set his eyes on high wire, and he eventually grows up to be a young but skillful street performer who can impress his audiences with many things besides his wire walking skill. As an ambitious young man, he is eager for professional success and achievement to be remembered, and his determination is not deterred at all even after he leaves his home due to his disapproving parents.
When he visits a dental clinic on one day in 1973, he happens to see a magazine article on the World Trade Center which is being built in Manhattan, and he instinctively knows what he wants to do. The adapted screenplay by the director Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne has Petit frequently talk and explain to us as if we could miss anything from what is being shown on the screen, and this distracting storytelling device feels quite redundant during many key scenes in the film including this one. We can instantly see and feel how important that moment is for him, so why do we have to be told about that?
Anyway, the movie starts to roll as Petit enlists a number of people in his secret project. Besides his girlfriend Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), he has Jean-Louis (Clément Sibomy) and Jeff (César Domboy) as his other accomplices, and he is also helped by his mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who can give several important advices on how to set a wire properly between the Twin Towers. After a sort of test run on the top of the Notre Dame de Paris, Petit gains more confidence on his project, and he and his gangs soon go to New York along with their tools and equipments.
As they look around the Twin Towers for finding any chance of entering the buildings without being caught, they are joined by more accomplices including Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) and Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), an insurance salesman who happens to work in one of the buildings. While there are a number of setbacks including Petit’s unexpected injury, Petit is adamant about sticking to the original plan, so everything is ready to be set in motion during the evening of August 5th, 1974.
What follows after that is not so far from what we have seen from many heist films. They come across more problems as their time is running out, but they manage to handle them while approaching to their final goal step by step. In case of one of Petit’s colleagues, it was apparent from the beginning that he must overcome his acrophobia, but then it turns out he has to do more than just being on the rooftop – and he has no safety measure to protect him.
The climax sequence in the film is indeed superb with terrifying verisimilitude to both shake and grip us, and Zemeckis and his crew did everything for vividly presenting Petit’s precarious wire walking between the Twin Towers, which are also realistically recreated on the screen with their monumental beauty of around 410 meter (1345 feet). Petit really went back and forth between the Twin Towers more than once – only with a balancing pole. Whenever the camera looks below the wire, some of you may wince or feel dizzy because of the overwhelming sense of height conveyed through the screen. While I cringed a few times as watching this sequence, my mother, who was sitting next to me, was visibly upset as clenching her fists, and she told me later that she could hardly watch it. Only God knows what would have happened if we had watched it in 3D IMAX instead of 2D.
However, the movie does not seem to be confident enough about its first-rate presentation of this awe-inspiring moment. Even at this point, it keeps talking and explaining to us through Petit to emphasize how sublime that moment was for him, and the movie is automatically compared to “Man on Wire”, which already presented the story in a similar but more compelling way through the mix of interviews, archival footage clips, and recreated scenes. Petit was unforgettable as the vivacious life force of that wonderful documentary, and it is inevitable that, with his rather strained French accent, Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks less interesting and authentic in comparison, though he does look believable on the wire with all those special effects surrounding him (he went through a training session with Petit before the shooting, by the way). Most of the other actors in the film are stuck with their uninteresting characters who are more or less than pieces to be moved in the story, and Ben Kingsley, who can always do something interesting on the screen, has a little fun with his broad but colorful character.
Despite its glaringly flawed aspects which place itself two or three steps below “Man on Wire”, “The Walk” is still recommendable for its impressive technical achievement to watch on the big screen. As indirectly reflected by its closing scene, the Twin Towers have belonged to the past since September 11th, 2001, and that horrible tragedy and Petit’s little big adventure remind us of how much we human beings are capable of. Driven by whatever makes us tick, we can often do pretty terrible things, but we can also do quite beautiful things sometimes.