Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Guillaume Baillargeon
Duration: 123 mins
KRS Releasing Ltd
In August 1974 Philippe Petit, a French wire-walker, walked the distance between the two towers of the World Trade Centre as the building was nearing completion, walking almost effortlessly across a cable suspended between the two buildings 110 storeys high.
It was a daring achievement that still resonates today and director Robert Zemeckis’ film The Walk introduces us to the daredevil Petit that made it happen.
In fact, for a good three-quarters of the film, the story is a straightforward biopic, as we first meet Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young street performer in Paris, struggling to make ends meet as he dreams of grander projects. Through flashbacks we learn that Petit fell in love with what would become his life’s ambition after seeing a circus wire-walking act in the small town where he grew up.
Practicing relentlessly throughout his childhood, his parents disapproved of his professed career choice and he is unceremoniously kicked out of home. In circus performer Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley), he finds a teacher and mentor who shapes very much of the accomplished performer Petit was to become.
There is something almost ordinary in this part of the film as Petit makes his plans and brings together a crew of assistants that include Petit’s patient and supportive girlfriend Annie (Charlotte le Bon); Clément Sibony as Jean-Louis (who’s afraid of heights!); César Domboy as Jeff; and James Badge Dale as Jean Pierre. Clearly, Zemeckis chose to save the best for last.
Luckily, until we get to the final scenes of the film, Gordon-Levitt makes for very engaging, if at times infuriating, company. Petit is as smug and cocksure as he is appealing. Yet, his unbridled passion and determination are truly infectious and Gordon-Levitt expertly captures this aspect of the man.
He is not merely a performer of dangerous stunts – his art is his life. This is evident from the moment he sees an advert for the World Trade Centre in a magazine. He draws a pencil line between the two imposing towers, sowing the seeds of the wire-walk that would consume his life for years.
The sight is vertiginously terrifying; the rush of adrenaline deafening
The obvious question – asked of anyone who attempts anything so hazardous – is why? “Why do you walk on the wire? Why do you tempt fate? Why do you risk death?” The answer, in his own words – the character narrates much of his own story direct to camera –is simple “…to walk on the wire, it’s life.”
And the film truly comes to life in its last 40 minutes or so, when, after meticulous planning, mishaps, problems, infights and what have you, Petit finally takes that first step, 420 metres above the ground on his wire.
And, while Gordon-Levitt is a joy to watch, his facial expressions and body language expertly capturing the man’s inner calm and confidence, it is here that Zemeckis really flexes his directorial muscles as he takes us, the viewer, onto that wire with his protagonist.
The director truly plays with our emotions – it is difficult to describe the scene without giving too much away. After Petit takes his first few steps, the reaction is almost “is that it?” before he really lets loose, displaying his astonishing death-defying prowess with aplomb to create some dizzying, terrifying and awe-inspiring spectacle.
And we are there with him all the way. Looking down into the void that leads to the streets below, the sight is vertiginously terrifying; the rush of adrenaline deafening. I suffer from vertigo – and my basest instinct was to look away. But I just couldn’t, so immersed was I in what was unfolding on screen and I almost revelled in the terror of it all. It is an astonishing sequence and a superb piece of filmmaking that celebrates a truly unique artist; a man who would not give up on his wildest dream.
And, after the exhilaration and triumph, the film ends on a very moving note. The reality is that Petit is the only person to have ever walked that line between the World Trade Centre towers; a record he will hold in eternity given the tragic fate of the buildings. This leaves a feeling of poignancy that lingers long after the final credits roll.