Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte LeBon
Rating: Three stars
In the early 1960s, a young boy called Phillipe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) growing up in France sneaks into a circus ring and watches, entranced, as the star performer walks across a wire strung across the big top. He’s fascinated by the art, can’t wait to try it himself. So he heads home, strings up a rope across a two trees, and begins to practise. He realises he has a gift almost, for things that require balance and dexterity — wire walking, juggling. So as a teen, he sets off to Paris to perform in the streets and make his living. In his own words, he’s always looking for a place to put up his wire — be it between lampposts, trees.
Then, one day he opens up a magazine and finds the perfect spot — the roofs of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. At 110 storeys, the towers are nearly 100 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower. Phillipe pencils in a line, connecting their roofs. And rigging his wire in place of that pencil line, and walking across it, becomes his all-consuming dream.
Over the next few years, Phillipe and his band of accomplices — his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte LeBon), circus legend Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) who takes Phillipe under his wing, and his friends (Clément Sibony, César Domboy) — work hard to make that dream come true. Finally, in August 1974, they reach a sort of now-or-never moment — work on the towers is finished, if Phillipe doesn’t pull off his “artistic coup” right then, it will be impossible once the towers are open and in full-fledged business, with the heightened security.
And so they set into motion their plan. Does Phillipe walk across the wire? Does he slip and fall, or is he triumphant? Does he even manage to carry through on the crazy logistics required to pull off his illegal stunt? We won’t be telling you that. But rest assured that you’ll be treated to breathtaking visuals of the twin towers and the New York cityscape in the telling of Phillipe’s stunt.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Phillipe Petit quite perfectly — guided by the real Mr Petit, he brings to life all the arrogance, sweetness, charm, single-mindedness and madness of the artiste. It takes some kind of personality to walk — without the benefit of a safety line or net — across 150 (or so) feet of thin wire, over 400 metres above the ground. Gordon-Levitt’s Philippe explains it simply: When people ask him if he isn’t afraid of death when he walks across his high wires, he points out that for him, this is life.
Gordon-Levitt’s French accent strikes an odd (and jarring) note at first, but once you get used to it, it begins to seem more natural. Also slightly jarring is the narrative device director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) has used to carry the story along — it features Phillipe standing by the torch of the Statue of Liberty and talking the audience through the transition from stage to stage in his story. A comical tone and depiction has been used for those sequences, which somehow seems out of place with the rest of the film. Gordon-Levitt is ably supported by the other cast members — Ben Kingsley is perfect as Papa Rudy, while LeBon, Sibony and Domboy make for sympathetic supporting characters.
But there are two other heroes in the film, and they compete equally for your attention with Phillipe’s derring-do. These are the twin towers of the WTC. Ever since 9/11, our image of them has been one engulfed with thick clouds of fire and smoke shortly before their collapsed. In The Walk, you have a throwback to their steely beauty, the tall lines of their structure that rose ever upwards, high into the sky. Looking through Phillipe’s eyes, at their roofs shrouded in clouds, you are reminded almost of the Tower of Babel from the Old Testament — the human ambition it signified, and its ultimate fate. As Phillipe finishes his story, the image that you are left with, is that of the twin towers, dwarfing the rest of the Manhattan skyline. Their very solidity makes their eventual fate all the more tragic, poignant. It makes real, what those buildings might have meant to New York, and what the city lost when the towers came crashing down....