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USA 2015
Directed by
Robert Zemeckis
123 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Walk, The (3D)

Synopsis: The story of how on the morning of August 7, 1974, high-wire artist, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), walked across the immense void between New York’s 110 storey World Trade Center towers.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that if you were going to make a feature film about Philippe Petit's remarkable real-life exploit that you'd take a trenchantly realistic approach to it. Surprisingly, and perhaps because James Marsh’s 2007 documentary, Man On Wire, has been there and done that, director Robert Zemeckis goes in exactly the opposite direction. He perches Petit atop the Statue of Liberty with the Twin Towers in the background from where he tells his story which we see in flashback from his childhood encounter with a circus high-wire act to his days as a Parisian street performer to the summit of his career with the Twin Towers walk.  

With its extensive use of CGI, visual effects and sweeping camerawork The Walk, at least for its first half is stylistically reminiscent of Scorsese’s Hugo with Zemeckis recasting Petit’s story as a kind of adventure fantasy.  It appears to be a serious error of judgement with Gordon-Levitt in a bad wig (why is it that Hollywood can recreate the New York skyline of 1975 but still can’t get the simple matter of a wig right?) affecting a French accent as he whips around on his unicycle behaving like a character out of some 1960s animation. By the time he meets his fellow busker girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) warbling Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” in some touristic Parisian boulevard cliché you are starting to wonder if the film can get any worse.  It doesn't get worse but to be honest, it doesn’t get better for a while, maintaining its forcedly jaunty tone as Petit learns the art of wire-walking from a sage Czech funambulist (Ben Kingsley, who was also in Hugo and who, by-the-by, must surely be the most ethnically chameleon-like actor the silver screen has ever seen) and puts together his motley crew for his crowning performance (his walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge earlier the same year doesn't get a mention).

Once we arrive at the actual “coup” as Petit calls the walk, the film assumes a Mission Impossible tone as the towers are cased, equipment is smuggled in, there are close-calls with security guards, culminating in the nick-of-time setting of the wire.  This feels more like it but the treatment of the walk itself sweeps all bad memories before it.  Making first class use of 3D digital technology Zemeckis takes us out on the wire, giving us, I assume with complete fidelity, an intense, breathtakingly vertiginous simulation of Petit’s extraordinary act as he gradually builds in confidence and what was intended as a single pass becomes the greatest high-wire act that has ever been seen.

I did not know it but apparently Petit is credited with making the Twin Towers, which were at the time only in the final stages of completion and widely regarded as ugly, into desirable New York icons. Of course today they are iconic for a very different reason and Zemeckis handles the contrasting and conflicting symbolic and emotional resonances with intelligence.  After Petit holds up the "forever" pass that he’d been given to the viewing gallery, Zemeckis cuts to a view of the towers glowing golden from the sun’s rays and standing proud on the Manhattan skyline.  The triumph seemed evident in 1974 but of course we now know that there is no “forever”.




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