Like Philippe Petit – the ostensible subject of his latest film – Robert Zemeckis is no fan of the easy path. The story of The Walk was already comprehensively covered in James Marsh’s Oscar winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire so why revisit it? It doesn’t help that one of the poster and trailer tag-lines is ‘like nothing you’ve seen before’ which is like waving a red flag at cynical film fanatics.
Which is a somewhat shortsighted attitude to take, because as Marsh’s excellent documentary made clear, one thing not captured on the day that Petit put two feet onto a wire rigged illegally between the North and South towers of the World Trade Centre and stepped into the void were moving images of the event. Furthermore, by shooting his film in pristine 3D, Zemeckis is quite clearly presenting the audience – on a visual level at least – with something they actually haven’t seen before.
While sticking relatively close to the official record of events presented in Marsh’s documentary, Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Christopher Browne’s most dramatic departure from Man on Wire is that the subject of their film is not really Philippe Petit but something more intangible, the transcendent possibilities of performance itself.
The Walk is structured in three clear acts.
Beginnings – Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) beginning of his career as a street performer. His training at the hands of mentor and circus master Papa Rudi (Ben Kingsley).
Planning the coup – Petit recruits collaborators for ever more audacious illegal wire walks leading to the planning and execution of his most audacious ‘coup’, the walk between the towers in New York. This section of the film plays out like a heist movie. Petit needs assistance and recruits his ‘crew’. They scope the scene of the crime and train and plan.
The Walk – the ultimate sequence to which the entire film builds. The actual wire-walk itself. In reality Petit spent nearly an hour between the towers, delighting in toying with the cops who eventually arrived on the roof to arrest him. In the film it runs a little shorter, but feels a lot longer. This is not a criticism, but you can measure how badly you suffer from vertigo by the point you start wishing he would step off the wire (for the record, I think it was about 10 minutes in for me).
Zemeckis and Browne have decided to smooth off some of the rough edges of Petit’s character. The infidelity that contributed to the failure of his relationship with his ‘first collaborator’ Annie Alix (Charlotte Le Bon) is not mentioned. Nor are the effects of his subsequent fame upon other relationships with his friends and collaborators. Instead the film turns Petit’s story into a kind of fairy tale, but not one with a cautionary message, rather one celebrating the human imagination triumphing over impossible odds.
Nevertheless, it is all about the walk. Using some of the best 3D photography and visual effects I have ever witnessed. Zemeckis crafts a work of art about a work of art. Petit’s walk has effects far beyond what he envisions, far beyond its instigators, and even immediate witnesses. The walk becomes a transformative event, creating a national landmark out of two brutalist office buildings (albeit ones built on a staggering scale).
The film’s lightness of touch is deceptive. All the dazzling technique and visual effects technology at play in the triumphant and thrilling final act wouldn’t be as successful if not preceded by so much careful scene setting. Petit first gained serious notoriety for a daring walk between the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, but this act is shown in long shot, and passed over quickly.
Similarly with the stereoscopic effects. There are a few showy 3D tricks Comin’ at Ya (3D nerd joke) early on (juggling clubs spin out at the audience. An arrow is shot into the frame) but the real artistry is kept back. When the final walk comes, it is an awe inspiring moment (at least in IMAX 3D) which drew a gasp from me so audible I startled myself.
Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski are keenly aware of the limitations of 3D, that it is only an illusion of depth. They use the striking angles and perspectives of the World Trade Centre are divided by Petit’s wire into vertiginous geometries of space and depth. And on this gossamer thread of wound steel dances Joseph Gordon-Levit a body suspended on thin air. The Walk is the first film since Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity to make 3D feel like it has a point (and without needing to wave that point in your face).
Yes, this is a story painted in broad strokes. Yes, Gordon-Levit employs an accent that can be accurately described as full-bodied and with a fruity bouquet (Allo, I iz Philippe). Yes, Alan Silvestri’s score goes from pastiche 60s/70s Lalo Schifrin-esque cool caper movie jazz, to full blown John Williams epic sweep. However, all of this is part of the sleight of hand, and when we reach that roof over New York this film takes off like a firefly at sunset.