Philippe Petit’s gobsmacking feat in 1974 electrified New York City and fostered a new respect for the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, which previously were an anathema to many who considered the “milk cartons” a blight on New York City’s iconic skyline. His 45 minute death defying, high-wire act prancing on a cable strung between the two buildings was an extravagant, elegant, and guilty pleasure for all who were lucky enough to be in the area and looked up. Though the superb, multi-award winning documentary Man on Wire (narrated by Petite with stills and re-enactments), chronicles Petit’s fabulous exploit from conceptualization to denouement, his anointed dance in the airy canyon between the buildings, is left to the imagination of the viewers. There is no live footage of his scintillating, adroit, and courageous walk.
The Walk, a recreation of Petit’s extraordinary “coup,”starring the seemingly quixotic but ingenious Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the divine aerialist, is the story of Petit’s audacious venture, as well as the story of the Twin Towers. The film is captained with grace and multi-layered depth by Robert Zemeckis. On one level The Walk is pure spectacle, monumental in its scope. Who can quibble or criticize the IMAX® 3D thrill of experiencing VFX magic: shots of dizzying panoramic views, the sharply fly-up camera angles zooming the length of the buildings, the sky, the clouds, the abyss,, the perilous streets below? The sequences are breathtaking and abjectly vertiginous. And the recreated shots of the 1970s, costumes, and sets are spot-on.
Even if you have acrophobia, this homage to the Twin Towers and Petit’s everlasting salute to the buildings, New York City and our country should not be missed for its exuberance and good will. This fun adventure includes all the vital players from Petit’s mentor Papa Rudy (played by the always fabulous Ben Kingsley), and his accomplices (played by Charlotte le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine). Suspense lurks at every corner and I was nerve-wracked into questioning whether Petit was going to triumph, even though I saw Man on Wire. This was especially so in the last thirty minutes. Zemeckis pulls away the safety net and subtly encourages one’s doubts by dismantling all the prior assurances about Petit’s cable rigging abilities. And true to Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds which Zemeckis adapted with Christopher Browne, the director includes other circumstances which are dire and reveals this is no cake walk to celebrity, but is a traumatic struggle. Petit must entwine every fiber of purpose and determination into a rope of strength and calm that will hitch his life to the star of success.
How Petit (Gordon-Levitt nuances these inner states to completely engage us), leaps into the middle of the psychic fire and with extraordinary will and genius comes through to materialize his dream, Zemeckis visually and aurally presents to be the magnificence of legend. The director includes Levitt’s narration during the walk segments which heightens the sacred nature of Petit’s adventure. Zemeckis’ team cleverly enhances the rhythmic patterns of silence and and sound. For example, the film spools and in silence we view the vastness of the void below, not daring to breathe as Petit slips into the central point between the towers, toes firm on the cable, posture straight, hands tightly gripping the pole. Then the quiet is broken by Levitt’s narration as the action intensifies and Petit expresses his inner thoughts about his experience and how he feels as he walks with us through destiny’s door and with uplifting affirmation personifies the affable towers and cables as friends.
The VFX shots from above and below are beautiful compositions; one could wax on about the symbolism of the formed geometrical lines of harmonious balance over the sky canyon evoked by the cables, Petit, and the pole he grips. Though he perceives for a time, the elements are congenial to him, and he is respectful; humanity intrudes with a strident, negative force in the shape of the police and their threats for him to stop. The irony is not lost on us about the suppression of artistic genius. Here Petit’s act becomes symbolic and raises one of the most vital themes of the film: what is timeless, beautiful, and ineffable must be recognized and applauded. To suppress or stop it endangers the soul (Petit for one nano second loses concentration), and may cause destruction. However, the police, themselves, embrace Petit’s exploits in their hearts and they express this afterward when he acquiesces, leaves the wire, and is arrested. At this point in the film we breathe a sigh of relief. Artistic gallantry is uplifted in the minds of all who witnessed Petit on August 7, 1974. And it is uplifted in our hearts as we watch to the end, mesmerized.
Zemeckis has been assiduous in assuring that we are experiencing powerful emotional content in this amazing film which has been incisively cast. Joseph Gorden-Levitt, equipped with accurate French accented English and high-wire skills that have been painstaking taught by Petit, mirrors the aerialist’s grandeur and specificity as he ventures over the void and makes the indelible, irrevocable connection that will never be duplicated again. In visually resurrecting these moments, this time in history, Zemeckis has effected the bittersweet poignance of loss and gain and the ultimate reminder that we must walk, if we can walk, in the joy and celebration of a dream about to come true.
The film also works on a profound level. In Zemeckis’ presentation, the towers are a metaphorical phoenix digitally rising from the dust and tragedy of horrified memories distilled by the buildings’ collapse on 9/11. The Towers are the star of the film from beginning to glorious, heavenly conclusion. And this is completely apt. As a symbol of New York and our country they were and are our country’s manifest destiny, as they were the manifest destiny of Petit when he saw a photograph of their proposed construction in a magazine, inked the line between the buildings on that photograph and solidified his singular and inspired commitment to “walk the walk of history.” This line drawing was the first movement along a journey which began in Paris, took him and his accomplices to New York and is still propelling him along a metaphysical journey that Petit is carving out today as he continues to arc out cables and make global connections through his talks (a great TED talk), workshops, books, and his Facebook and Twitter pages.
Petit’s illegal exploit has been deemed one of the greatest artistic crimes and the finest of anti-establishment, subversive art. Zemeckis encapsulates Petit’s playful subversiveness as he dares to think “outside the box” and believe in the most extraordinary of possibilities with well thought out preparation, hard work, and skillful talent.
In this film Zemickis reminds us of our own plucky, innovative, and hard working roots encouraged by a Frenchman who narrates from the high perch of the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Zemeckis’ selection to place Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), there is ironic, symbolic, inspired. The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France and a symbol of liberty and freedom which, as a high emblematic ideal, we have yet to achieve on a national level, perhaps. However, as impossible as was Petit’s connection of joining the Twin Towers with a cable across the void which he would traverse, believing he could do it, liberty (in all forms-personal, economic, national etc.), is something Americans should continue to believe in as whimsical as that may seem. However, it is a worthy dream of connection across the void of negativity and the abyss of oppression and fear.
Zemeckis’ other choices in the film are uplifting as is the inclusion of Lady Liberty as Petit’s point of narration high up in New York Harbor. And if one looks carefully beyond the enthralling and awesome cinematography and VFX effects, one will be gripped by a theme of transcendent beauty and hope which moves beyond current cultural cynicisms. Despite economic oppression, and suppression by establishment and mainstream institutions, one may do exploits if one remains “outside the box,” innovates, and works prodigiously. Yes, one may have to lay one’s life or assets “on the line” as Petit did lying down on the high-wire. Or one may not. But Zemeckis’ film reveals that Petit was committed to the point where not even his accomplices thought he could pull off “le coup.” At times they thought he was crazy. It takes that kind of determination to do what others deem impossible. But for Petit not to attempt his feat would have been crazy impossible. And to fear or have doubts stopping him would have been worse than facing the void in the sky canyon between the towers. And after all, he believed he would succeed.
Thus, Zemeckis uses Petit as a flash-point. His “coup” as revolutionary as it was at the time, continues to sound the bell of revolution for us today. It is this revolutionary bell that Zemeckis rings throughout the film, exemplified by the Twin Towers’ digital recreation and all that this recreation perhaps may represent. Certainly, one man’s stirring, triumphant, subversive, artistic act is a symbol of limitless possibilities inspiring us to dream then act as he did. And one of those dreams is the possibility of our country’s healing and renewal after the attacks on 9/11 and the wars that continue until today. When you see the film, and you will, check out the final shot. Then let me know what you think.[amazon template=iframe image&asin= B001E5FYS8]