The Walk is a biographical drama directed by the legendary Robert Zemeckis starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit, the French high-wire artist who strung a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and walked across on the morning of August 7, 1974. The film details the birth and evolution of Petit’s unique passion for high-wire walking, the Ocean’s 11-esque planning that went into setting up his perfect stage above New York between the towers, and, of course, the harrowing and magical walk across the wire itself.
The Walk is a bit slow during its first act in France, and it even drags slightly when Petit is making his preparations in New York City, but once Petit steps out onto the cable, the intensity and marvel of the film is cranked up to unprecedented levels. The film is bolstered by a strong albeit somewhat campy performance from Gordon-Levitt and features mystifying visuals, especially when seen in IMAX 3D.
The film opens with Phillipe Petit atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty, and this introduces him as not only the protagonist of the film but also the narrator. The movie will cut back to him on the torch for a few lengthy moments of exposition. This reminded me of how in old PBS children’s programs the story of the episode would be told from some related, spectacular setting by a whimsical figure. For example, Shining Time Station would have George Carlin tell stories of Thomas the Tank Engine from a colorful train station. Of course, The Walk’s narration isn’t nearly as juvenile, but it does have a similar dreamlike quality to it and can sometimes wander into cheesiness.
Back in the story itself, the audience is introduced to Petit’s antics as a street performer, and the film immediately begins to dazzle the eyes. Petit juggles and tosses various objects up to the camera in gentle arcs as he buzzes around on a unicycle, and it’s all giddy, harmless fun. The audience is also shown Petit’s odd transfixion with the circus; after seeing a high-wire performer as a child, he sneaks into a big top tent at night, now as a young adult, and attempts to make the walk himself. This is when Ben Kingsley’s character named Papa Rudy is introduced. He is the brash, silly patriarch of the traveling circus Petit happened to see, and he trains him in the art of high-wire walking. Papa Rudy’s lessons and small-time gigs for Petit are often just as visually stunning as Petit’s street performances. During all this, Petit has befriended a lovely guitar-playing street performer named Annie, and she assists him in reaching his big dreams of New York City skyline wire-walking.
So, while there are certainly moments of visual beauty in this first part of the film, it is otherwise somewhat slow. Petit is difficult to relate to at first; this is a bizarre passion that most would be completely averse to, so, it is rather easy to distance oneself from these lower key goings-on and not feel quite as invested or compelled.
Eventually, Petit makes his way to New York City with Annie and two other close friends hoping to assemble a team to sneak into the then incomplete Twin Towers to send a cable across for the most spectacular high-wire act of all time. The film picks up some speed here as they recruit some quirky Americans to assist in the “heist” and as Petit’s ego causes some internal turmoil among the team, but the excitement really begins when they enter the tower, transporting a crate of heavy equipment, avoiding and tricking guards, and ultimately stringing the cable across in the dead of night. Technical complications and uncooperative teammates build tension slowly but powerfully until dawn comes and Petit steps out onto the wire.
The camerawork in this extended scene is enchanting, making the viewer feel the weight of the balancing pole and the subtle little shudders in the cable while simultaneously emulating the confident poise of Petit. Not to spoil the exhilarating moments of this godly high-wire act, but there are a few surprises that up the ante even further, and it is absolutely both physically and emotionally dizzying to watch in the best possible way.
After such a climactic event, one may think the denouement to be underwhelming, but it is here where it is easiest to connect with the character of Petit. A police officer makes a comment to him that makes his strange obsession mean something truly and universally special, and it was one of my favorite quieter moments of the film. It is here were audiences can realize the wonder and magnitude of this event and let its reality soak in.
Overall, The Walk may slog along in its first half or so due to a disconnect from these odd but very real characters; however, the main event and falling action bring it all together captivatingly and remind viewers just how physically and emotionally transcendent this stunt put on by a determined French twenty-something was that misty Wednesday morning in 1974.