THE WALK. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. 123 minutes.Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language).
In making ‘The Walk’, director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis forced himself to walk a difficult tightrope, pun fully intended. Most audience members will be aware that Phillipe Petit succeeds in his attempt to walk between New York’s Twin Towers, removing the element of mortal peril which accompanied the true story as it first unfolded. However, it so playfully made, strongly acted and thematically probing that it is consistently engaging despite the audience’s knowledge. It helps also that the backstory of how the dream came together is just as watchable as any fictional heist or caper film.
Phillipe Petit, played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, narrates the story standing atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, the gleaming Towers standing proudly in the skyline behind him. He takes us to his youth in France, acquiring an interest in highwire walking from a visiting circus, and ultimately being driven from home by a conservative father to become a troubadour on the streets of Paris. Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have a box of dazzling tricks up their sleeves (making the best use of 3D technology this reviewer has seen in some time), the camera constantly moving through his performances to put the audience right there in the streets of the Latin Quarter.
His narration takes us to his discovery of and subsequent obsession with the then under construction Towers in a French broadsheet, as well as his mentor-mentee relationship with cantankerous Czech wirewalker Papa Rudy, embodied by Ben Kingsley in a familiar but welcome turn. Phillipe meets beautiful street musician Annie, and together they begin putting together a crew of ‘accomplices’ to assist with the ‘greatest artistic coup of the century’. Charlotte Le Bon, a charming French actress, plays Annie with grace and determination, though her character’s fascinating (and arguably subversive) arc is left undercooked in favour of Phillipe’s journey.
Phillipe performs a few warm up runs, beginning with a failed performance to cross a lake at a small village festival. His final practice takes place in the skies between the two towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The spiritual significance of the site takes on an element of the sublime in his crossing
The group head to New York at last, and the lead up to the feat is told in an extended sequence, well-paced by editor Jerimiah O’Driscoll. Phillipe enlists a few Americans into his crew, and spends hours doing ‘spy work’ to log details like guard, construction and delivery schedule. Obstacles begin to mount against the attempt – Phillipe is injured by an errant nail on the Towers worksite, one of his accomplices is crippled by a fear of heights, guard movements fluctuate randomly. However, the stars align and despite running behind schedule, Phillipe steps out onto a highwire between the structures early in the morning.
The walk itself is wonderful, a beautiful concoction of special effects, soaring camera work, and voiceover musings on the nature of performance and artistry. Needless to say, sufferers of vertigo need not apply. Composer Alan Silvestri crafts a strong score, creating tension and awe in equal measure. Throughout the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has made a compelling protagonist, cocky and winning, but here he inhabits the role in a different, almost transcendent way. When the walk commenced with a significant amount of screentime remaining, this reviewer was concerned that it would not sustain the necessary duration, but Gordon-Levitt and Zemeckis pull off their own artistic coup with a truly stunning set piece.
The film’s final note is a curious and tragic nod to the fate that would befall the Twin Towers. On the whole, this momentary meditation speaks to the thought and emotion at work in the film. It doesn’t appear to be doing much business at the box office in America, but this is definitely a walk worth taking.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 15.