You may know the name Philippe Petit. He’s the French-born wire-walker whose most famous exploit was, in 1974, to string a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and pull off what is often referred to as "the artistic crime of the century."
Fans of documentary film should be particularly well versed in all things Petit. Besides the many news stories about what Petit himself referred to as “le coup,” James Marsh’s 2008 documentary "Man on Wire" about the Twin Towers feat – which, the walk itself aside, required an incredible amount of planning, coordination and subterfuge – won the 2009 Documentary Feature Oscar.
And now we have “The Walk,” a film by Robert Zemeckis, that tells the same familiar story but with actors filling in for the real-life Petit and posse. So why should anyone go? Well, let me offer a few reasons.
One, there’s something hypnotic about watching a movie on the big screen – especially a movie formatted in IMAX 3-D – that portrays what it’s like to stand on a ledge 110 stories above the street. If you’re sensitive to heights, “The Walk” is bound to cause your stomach to flutter.
Two, Zemeckis tends to make entertaining movies. From the “Back to the Future” trilogy, to more adult fare such as “Cast Away” and “Flight,” Zemeckis – like James Cameron – specializes in films that feature both accessible storylines and envelope-pushing visual effects.
Three, Zemeckis had the good sense to cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. Affecting a French accent that passes mainstream muster, Gordon-Levitt serves not only as the film’s protagonist but also, in effect, as its very ringmaster. Petit himself was loath to limit his talents to the circus life, but Zemeckis uses that three-ring cheerleading conceit as his chief narrative device.
So, we see Petit from his teenage beginnings as a Paris street performer, to his first interests in wire-walking, through his apprenticeship with a circus star (played by Ben Kingsley) and his first public performance – walking a cable strung between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral – on to his first fantasies of tackling the World Trade Center, then still under construction.
We see him develop a series of relationships, from the obligatory romantic ideal – the French heartthrob Annie, played by Charlotte Le Bon – to the rest of the crew that would help him pull off his biggest artistic “crime.” And all the while, Zemeckis – relying both on Gordon-Levitt’s energy and regular glimpses of Manhattan streets from more than 400 meters in the air – manages to maintain a sense of tension. Even for those of us who know full well what happens.
Sure, on occasion Zemeckis panders to the melodramatic. And like any biopic, his film – which he co-adapted with Christopher Browne from Petit’s memoir “To Reach the Clouds” – alters facts and time-sequencing for dramatic effect.
But the taking of such dramatic license to tell this true story barely matters. “The Walk” works as entertainment, but it also stands as a testament to the Towers themselves – Towers whose loss a quarter century after Petit’s artistic “coup” would change the world.