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The Walk

October 9, 2015
The Walk

As I write this, The Walk has been out in IMAX-branded and other “premium large-format” theaters for about a week. When it opens to regular theaters, more people will be able to see it, but I still encourage you to find the largest screen possible. Go ahead and pay for the 3-D as well, since Robert Zemeckis shot this re-enactment of Philippe Petit’s spectacular high-wire act stereographically, rather than post-converting it like most movies do. On a large screen, in 3-D, the experience is immersive, and even profound.

As a caveat, there have been reports of vertigo turning some audience members’ stomachs. This didn’t happen to me, but I believe it’s a real possibility. As dizzying as some scenes in Everest were, The Walk is significantly more convincing. Back in the days of real side-of-a-building IMAX shows at science museums, the movie was preceded by suggestions to turn away, or put your head down between your knees if you started to feel disoriented. This is the first time in the age of movie-theater IMAX that I felt they should have brought that back.

No, The Walk affected me on a much more neurological level, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Much of it is a simple restatement of the history leading up to le coup, which you can probably get more factually from the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire. Working as an unlicensed street performer in Paris, Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with decent French pronunciation but an atrocious French accent) sees a magazine article about the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. His dream becomes to string a wire between the towers and walk across.

We rush through Petit’s training with Rudy Omankowski (Ben Kingsley), his relationship with his “first accomplice”, Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), and the rest of the group that would help him pull off his stunt. There are some digressions, and some visual flourishes on Zemeckis’ part — analogues of the juggling and pantomime acts Petit mastered besides his wire-walking. But soon the distractions fall away, and everything is pointed towards le coup, and Petit’s preparations.

Petit rushes us through like a carnival barker, and yet something about his enthusiasm and the twinkle in his eye is infectious; it’s no wonder he could find his accomplices, and we’re quickly at his side despite the insanity of it all. There are flaws in the story, but Zemeckis is secretly rigging up the emotional cavaletti that will support the story of le coup itself.

Petit’s setup is peppered with scares and setbacks, each one preparing us for his walk. A scare with a guard drives Petit to hide under a canvas, which just happens to cover the space above an open elevator shaft where the sheave has yet to be installed. Perched on an I-beam across this yawning abyss, Zemeckis rarely points his camera down, but we feel the emptiness below Petit just the same. Later, Petit must jump out to the edge of the roof to retrieve the fishing line shot by arrow across from the other tower. His capering shows us just how comfortable he is, and reminds us of the terrible distance to the ground. Then, when passing the steel cable across the gap, it slips nearly out of the accomplices’ grasp, reinforcing the weight and scale of this undertaking.

At the same time, Zemeckis is telling us the story of the Towers themselves, and how Petit’s walk changed them. They went up as eyesores; “giant filing cabinets” that leapt from Lower Manhattan like an underbite; just another blow to the character of a once-great city, sinking into the doldrums of the 1970s. Looking up from the ground, they never seem to stop. From the top, seeing little Petit framed
against the opposite tower in the background, the scale is simply obscene. And yet, by walking through the air between them, Philippe Petit turned them into a place where miracles happened. And Zemeckis has the wisdom to elide explicit mention of their fate.

By the time Petit checks the rigging on his tower and assembles his pole, Zemeckis has everything in place. The void opens below the wire, as it stretches out forever. The pole turns slowly, carefully, balanced between the weight of years leading up to this moment, and the solemnity of the task at hand. There are twenty minutes left to see the walk, but Zemeckis, masterful in his showmanship, salutes us as Petit steps out onto the wire. And I weep.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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