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Non-Review Review: The Walk

“It is not real,” Philippe Petit reflects quite early in The Walk.

Resting his chin against one of the steel supports running the height of the World Trade Centre, Philippe stares upwards into infinity. Up until that moment, the Twin Towers had existed as a conceptual object for the young French tightrope artist; he had only seen them in photographs and sketches, framed in comparison to the Eiffel Tower to afford them a sense of scale. Appreciating the majesty of the World Trade Centre in the flesh is almost too much to process. Making them more real has somehow made them less real.

Walk on the wild side...

Walk on the wild side…

Philippe could just as easily be talking about the film that surrounds him. Director Robert Zemeckis might be best known for his work on Back to the Future, but a lot of his twenty-first century filmography has been fixated upon the unreal; Zemeckis has become known for his fascination with motion-capture and computer-generated imagery, the illusive pursuit of verisimilitude through the uncanny valley. The special effects used to realise The Walk are superb and top of the line, but there remains a feeling of unreality to the whole film.

It would be impossible to film The Walk in a real location using real stunts. The Walk is an ode to New York City, but to a version of New York City that no longer exists. Tourists cannot visit it, although perhaps it might be found on a postcard or trapped in a photo. The Walk cleverly and consciously refuses to downplay that feeling of unreality, feeling almost like a nostalgic memory recalled through the fog of time. Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers was so effective because it was real; The Walk is so effective precisely because it is unreal.

Stepping out...

Stepping out…

This feeling of unreality is reinforced by the framing device of having Philippe address the audience directly, standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty. It is a very logical choice on a number of levels. Man on a Wire had demonstrated that the real Philippe Petit was a master of performance, including storytelling. Allowing his counterpart a platform allows him to infuse the story with warmth and character. More than that, though, it draws attention to the artiface of the film; it seems like Philippe has invited us to join him in a waking dream.

Part of Philippe’s skill as a storyteller comes from his colourful use of English. Although not a natural speaker, he has a gift for words; it seems almost ironic that he began performer on the streets of Paris as a mime. His introductory monologue meditates on the power of the word “death”, which he promises never to use. Throughout The Walk, he repeatedly uses abstract nouns as labels for concepts. “The coup” becomes the name that he has assigned to his ambitious dream to walk a tightrope tied between the Twin Towers, affording it an epic scale.

Hitting a high...

Hitting a high…

However, Philippe refers to the empty space around the Twin Towers as “the void.” This makes logical sense; were Philippe to lose his balance or slip, he would be forever consigned to “the void.” However, the void takes on another more ominous meaning in the large context of New York City’s recent past. “The void” exists as the absence in things, almost as a euphemism for the word “death” that Philippe has so boldly struck from his vocabulary. If you remove the Twin Towers, all that remains is “the void.”

There is no way to avoid the trauma of 9/11 on New York City. Hollywood has often struggled with how best to address the loss in film. In the years following the attacks upon the World Trade Centre, there was even speculation that over-zealous studio executives might begin the process of digitally removing the Twin Towers from historical footage of the skyline so as to avoid causing offence. The presence (or absence) of the World Trade Centre in every film set in and around Manhattan became a political decision.

Meticulous balanced...

Meticulous balanced…

Fourteen years later, it feels like enough time has passed. The Walk never explicitly mentions the tragedy waiting in the future, but it alludes pretty heavily – particularly in its final act. After so many years of being so sensitive about the depiction of the World Trade Centre in popular culture, it feels like enough time has passed that the two twin structures can finally be acknowledged. The Twin Towers are just as much a star as Joseph Gordon Levitt, to the point that they dwarf him on the various posters.

Although The Walk is the story of Philippe Petit’s awe-inspiring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, it also meditates on the city of New York itself. Philippe is drawn to the city after seeing a photograph in a Parisian magazine, falling immediately in love with the Big Apple. Early on in the film, Philippe argues with an instructor about the need to pay homage to the audience; the idea that the spectator is just as important as the artist. “There is no show without an audience,” Philippe’s mentor advises him. Philippe eventually comes to understand.

"At least it's not as distracting as that time I was Bruce Willis..."

“At least it’s not as distracting as that time I was Bruce Willis…”

The Walk shrewdly ties the story of Philippe to the city itself, framing his adventure as a love story to New York. As he contemplates the near-impossible physical act ahead of him, Philippe meditates on how his fate is tied to the cable that is tied to the building that is anchored in the city. It seems that the entire city comes out to watch Philippe, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Indeed, the Sphere located at the centre of the fountain at the centre of World Trade Centre Plaza seems to stare up at Philippe like an eye; the city is as much a spectator as anybody else.

There is a gentle charm to The Walk. The film adopts the structure of a daring heist film, but enjoys a more relaxed pace. There is a sense of inevitability to Philippe’s walk, despite the occasional hurdles and suspense. It is impressive how little time the film devotes to the logistics of Philippe’s plot. This allows The Walk to devote more time to establishing its motley gang and to the eventual triumphant walk. The Walk is a celebratory movie in many ways, an exuberant and heartwarming tale. It is a romance, just not between two people.

A breath of fresh air...

A breath of fresh air…

There is an endearing and infectious warmth to The Walk that makes it a delight from start to finish. It feels completely unreal, but that is the entire point.

9 Responses

  1. I remember stating on a forum someplace that Zemeckis is my favorite director. (The topic at hand.)

    This actually surprised me, and I found myself having to articulate exactly why I enjoy Robert Zemeckis movies, even if they are predictable pablum which doesn’t normally appeal to me. (Since “Cast Away”, it’s safe to say his best work is probably behind him.)

    He’s a workmanlike director with a great stable of cinematographers and composers behind him. Their work in Flight was exceptional even if the script wasn’t.

    Even the movies he helpes produce manage to rise above the material. (Thirteen Ghosts was ahead of its time!!!One!)

    I guess I feel he’s underrated. He used to be the go-to guy for big spectacle events, but the throne has been taken by Bay and Snyder. So it feels like Zemeckis is being shoehorned into projects that nobody is excited about. As long as it contains 5-8 min of chroma key and is slated for an October release. “Put it in the Zemeckis pile. *chomps cigar*”

    • I think that “workmanlike” can be under appreciated. There’s a level of basic craftsmanship that appeals to me in directors like Zemeckis or Howard that I think a lot of my contemporaries really dislike. Neither would rank as my own personal favourite, but I think that it’s easy to undervalue the ability to tell a story cleanly and effectively. (The same is also true of Eastwood, though I tend to steer clear of arguments about Eastwood because they inevitably become political.)

  2. I’m so not interested in references to 9-11, even if it’s just one time. I hope it’s not that gauche.

    • It’s not an overt or articulated reference, but the film’s very existence cannot be divorced from the realities of 9/11. The emphasis on unreality, and Philippe’s final meditations on his relationship to New York, not to mention the final shot of the film, are all coded in the context of 9/11. And that’s entirely reasonable and fair; it would be dishonest and disingenuous to pretend that the film’s subject matter could be explored without acknowledging (implicitly but heavily) those horrific atrocities.

      • Thanks for clarifying. I’m watching the biography of Phillip Petit “Man on Wire” right now for the 4th time and this vintage footage never gets old. I’m not sure I care to see Josh Gordon Leavitt imitate. I’ll probably see it.

      • Yep. It is very much an imitation, narratively. But I think there’s room for spectacle and scale in a retelling like this.

      • Cool! Thanks for the great review. I will see it either in theater or download it on TV later.

  3. When 9/11 happened, I was a junior in high school. I had a part-time job working at a public library, and one day shortly after the attacks, I found myself shelving books in the “US Geography” section of juvenile non-fiction. I decided to take a peek into a book about New York to see if it had anything to say about the Twin Towers, and it had a page spread on this tightrope walk. I had never heard of it, and it was so incredibly bizarre to read about in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

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