The Walk

Robert Zemeckis has given us The Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away and Flight. These are formidable works that strike a cultural nerve and straddle past, present and future. Indeed, Mr. Zemeckis has a way of transporting us across the space-time continuum with flair and style. He weaves humanism into his stories of adventure, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to simply entertain.

The Walk

His latest film, The Walk, seems to be a clear labor of love. It’s based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds. Mr. Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 stands as one of the most amazing human accomplishments ever, driven entirely by necessity, courage and the belief that art should play on a larger stage. His story becomes more important with each passing year we live in a post Tower world. This fact alone is more than a sufficient reason to bring the story back for a modern look.

Mr. Petit named his project le coup. it was by definition done undercover and on a tight budget. There was no investment put into capturing it beyond the amateur photographer accomplices who wore many hats that day, including the unlikely role of archer. Hence we have only grainy and mostly black and white archive images of his amazing feat. James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar winning feature documentary Man on Wire was the first time we got an up close look at Mr. Petit and his carefully planned caper. His documentary is the definitive chronology of what happened in New York on August 7, 1974, and I watch it every year on September 11th.

The Walk borrows heavily from documentary style that includes frequent cuts back to Philippe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perpetually perched on the torch of Lady Liberty. It leverages much of what was in Man on Wire, because that’s what’s written in To Reach the Clouds. It validates Mr. Marsh’s work allowing Mr. Zemeckis to focus his 3D, IMAX, big Hollywood budget on putting us on the high wire.

The early reels of the film seem to be from another story. We learn how Mr. Petit came to be drawn by the lure of the wire. There are sequences from his childhood that briefly include his parents and his early mentor, Papa Rudy, played by Ben Kingsley, who apparently can’t function without his hat or his dogs. He meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Both are street performers in search of a dream. Mr. Petit has his dream clearly defined and is now on a journey to attract the people and fortune to carry it out.

Wire Walking

Mr. Gordon-Levitt has taken some flack for his accent in many reviews. When I look at his performance on the whole, he delivers on the things that matter. Heart, passion, drive and art. He captured Mr. Petit’s ability to envision and then achieve something most of us don’t even think about. The quality of his accent is of little importance in my mind.

Philippe and Annie make their way to New York and emerge from the subway to the staggering sight and enormity of the Towers. Momentarily discouraged Philippe is given and opening. A door is left ajar and he runs through it, climbing the stairs to the top of the Tower. Once there. Once he looks at the void between the twins, his will is cemented.

A band of characters is assembled to pull off the caper, but there ends up being just a couple who are committed enough to Philippe’s dream to see it through. On the day they decide to carry out the feat, they face numerous obstacles, all of which are somehow magically disappeared. There was a moment when the cable had been hung and Philippe was ready to make the walk, when a businessman emerged from below, surveyed the situation and simply walked back down without saying a word. Perhaps the Towers themselves somehow intervened, seemingly longing what was likely the only above ground physical connection each would have with the other.

The last forty minutes will make you squirm as the wire walker performs. In the documentary Man on Wire, we don’t see any footage of Philippe walking the wire. Only stills. Mr. Zemeckis gives us that gift in The Walk. We are there for every step on the wire hastily strung and secured. It’s worth seeing in IMAX 3D and if you were ever in the Towers, or gazed up or looked down from the observation deck, be prepared for what you will feel.

WTC Pass

The technical aspects of the film are exceptional all around. Highly recommended and rated PG, so take your children and have that discussion. The official website is horrible. I’m so disappointed in how the studios uses their movie sites now.

Photo credits: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Magnolia Pictures

Man on Wire: Philippe Petit’s Emotional Triumph

Beautiful and mesmerizing. More like a caper film than a documentary. That’s how I’d describe Man on Wire, winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary and the Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize for World Documentary. Director James Marsh set out to tell the story of Philippe Petit, the man who wire walked between the World Trade Center Towers in August, 1974. What he ended up with is closer to drama than newsreel.

With the backdrop of Nixon’s Watergate and an America reaching for the stars with the groundbreaking of the WTC, Mr. Marsh effectively blends talking head documentary shots, actual footage, photos, interviews, documents, and recreations of the events to tell this remarkable story. Original music by J. Ralph with help from Michael Nyman’s signature piano helps build the emotion. The score is nicely combined with a diverse selection of songs.

It’s clear that Mr. Marsh was given full access to the Petit’s personal archives. He chose his assets wisely and the result is engrossing. Footage, anecdotes and Mr. Petit himself on screen walking us through the story; paragraph by paragraph. Yes, there’s a bit of French hubris that hits us in the face, but that’s part of his charm.

Mr. Petit is clearly a driven and talented man who approaches each day as if it’s a new canvas to paint. He occupies much of the screen time and puts on a show, retelling the event in exuberant detail. It’s not about “why,” he says when in custody. There is sufficient evidence to lead us to believe it’s about must.

Photo Credit: Jim Moore - Philippe Petit preparing

Nearly six years in preparation, this feat would have an improbable chance of success if it had full support of the entire city of New York. But to pull it off undercover with a makeshift band of players was nothing short of astounding. They had one stroke of good fortune after another. A guard on the 104th floor saw them walk past carrying the heavy coils of wire but said nothing. The arrow shot from a bow to connect the two buildings landed precariously on the corner of the other tower and could have fallen. Any single broken link along the way and it would have meant the dream would have failed, or worse.

On the wire

Once he was on the wire the police arrived quickly and summoned him to return to one of the towers. Petit would move close to them, and just as he was about to be in their grasp, he would turn and move toward the other tower. In all he spent 45 minutes on the wire and crossed eight times. All on no sleep, having had to rig the wire during the previous night. We know how it turns out, as it happened over 30 years ago. Still there is tension and uncertainty because what he did was so unbelievable, it leaves us questioning our own memory.

Mr. Marsh and the filmmakers frequently make you feel as if you’re watching a feature film. Only when he cuts to the individuals telling their part of the story, or interspersed archival footage, are we pulled back into reality.

France gifted the Statue of Liberty to us as to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln in hopes that France would be inspired to create their own democracy. The Twin Towers were meant as a symbol of worldwide commerce. A global statement and uniquely American.

I always found it mystical that it was a Frenchman who was so deeply drawn to these Towers. A deep connection was formed between them. Something we all experienced on that bright September morning in 2001. All in full view of Lady Liberty.

The film is based on Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers. There is also a wonderful children’s book on the subject, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. It’s full of magical artwork that earned a him a Caldecott Award and captivated the interest of my four year old.

Take a break from the Hollywood grist mill of crushingly generic films and go see Man on Wire. Highly recommended. Available on DVD, December 8, 2008. Visit the official Man on Wire web site here.

Haunting theme to Man on Wire.



Update: Man on Wire is available on Netflix.

Read my review of The Walk here.