The only real knock against The Walk is that it has to follow an outstanding documentary on the same subject. 2008’s Man on Wire recounts the unbelievable story of Phillippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who pulled off one of the greatest pranks of all time with his unauthorized stroll between the tower roofs of the World Trade Center in 1974. The doc won the Oscar in 2008, marked by Petit’s scene-stealing balance of the award on his chin. The Walk has to duplicate its predecessor’s feat in a fictional context, a seemingly futile exercise that can’t help but feel like a second-hand copy. Petit himself is such a larger-than-life figure that even a bona-fide movie star might have trouble matching him, and the contrivances of dramatization mean that the story’s extraordinary twists and turns might feel far too far-fetched to be believed.
That’s a tall order, but luckily, The Walk has assembled the right team for the job. It starts with Robert Zemeckis, a good filmmaker whose only failings come when he tries to be great. As an auteurial master, he leaves a lot to be desired, but as the purveyor of smarter-than-average Hollywood product he has comparatively few peers. To that, you add Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit: an inherently charming actor with the range to find the soul of the man he’s playing instead of just mimicking a French accent. Petit’s obsessions with the Towers, his need to be at the center of his own one-of-a-kind show, his arrogance, and the audacity that allowed him to pull off this amazing stunt, all of it can be found in Levitt’s deceptively effortless performance.
That’s to be expected, of course, since Petit’s art form depends on appearing effortless. The meaning of his stint on the Towers depends not simply on its death-defying nature (and seriously, if you’re afraid of heights, be ready for a few white-knuckle moments here), but on the fact that he refused to ask for permission before doing it. Anything else would simply be a publicity stunt. But because he just decided to do it, and relied on just a small handful of co-conspirators to pull it off, it became a potent – and ultimately wonderful – form of art.
And it took a lot of work. Zemeckis delves lovingly into the details of how Petit first became fixated on the project, then carefully planned for each step involving as few people as possible. Most of his “team” came from his fellow Parisian bohemians, including his long-suffering girlfriend Annie (Charlotte le Bon), though it also took a few New Yorkers sympathetic to his scheme and with the kind of access to the Trade Center that he needed. Each step holds its own fascination, and with a filmmaker as technically accomplished as Zemeckis, it comes with plenty of visual flourishes to underscore the inherent drama. We’re wrapped up in it before we know it, and with Levitt’s smiling ringmaster beckoning form every frame, we can’t help but hang on just to see if he’s actually going to pull this off.
That’s no mean feat when you consider the event’s status as a foregone conclusion, and speaks to The Wire’s efficiency as pure entertainment. But underneath it all, it hides something a little more profound: something dictated by the circumstances of the Twin Towers and Petit’s methods to do what he did. It involved fake IDs, vans full of suspicious goods and similar forms of brazen deception… and if you can plant a tightrope wire, you can also plant a bomb. His steps closely matched those of a terrorist attack, and yet the effect was completely different: something beautiful, iconoclastic and unforgettable in all the best ways. Petit may have retroactively reclaimed the Towers for all of us when he did what he did, demonstrating that the same tactics used to bring about such death and horror could also be used to fill us with wonder and joy. At the end of the day The Walk fiercely confirms the importance of his act: fun yes, but also reminding us that the human heart doesn’t always carry evil in its depths. It’s a fact well worth remembering, and The Walk is memorable enough to make the lesson stick.