“And what’s this all for?” asks the U.S. Customs Agent. Philippe Petit replies, “I’m going to hang a high wire between the World Trade Center Towers…and walk on it.” The Customs Agent sarcastically responds, “Right. Good luck.”
French high-wire artist Philippe Petit gained fame in 1974 for his high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in New York City, a feat that took six years to plan. The event would later be the subject of James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire, and Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds would eventually be adapted into a feature film by Robert Zemeckis. I was intrigued by the 3D aspect of the film and how the walk would be depicted, and the trailers completely sold me on the film. I got to see a preview screening of The Walk in 3D on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art, which was followed by a Q&A with co-writer/director Zemeckis. Both the film and the Q&A were very enjoyable (the 3D was just incredibly stunning; my favorite part of the Q&A was the revelation that Petit himself was in the audience).
2015’s The Walk follows a French high-wire artist who, after seeing a picture of the World Trade Center in a French newspaper, hatches a plan to walk on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and assembles a team that will help him accomplish this task. Zemeckis assembled a terrific ensemble that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Philippe Petit), Ben Kingsley (as Papa Rudy), Charlotte Le Bon (as Annie Allix), Clement Sibony (as Jean-Louis), James Badge Dale (as Jean-Pierre), Cesar Domboy (as Jeff), Ben Schwartz (as Albert), Benedict Samuel (as David), and Steve Valentine (as Barry Greenhouse). Gordon-Levitt is very entertaining as Petit, bringing determination, vulnerability, and a lot of charm to the role (his narration was quite humorous and his French accent was spot-on). Kingsley is fatherly as Papa Rudy, who teaches Philippe how to perfectly walk on a wire, and Le Bon is supportive and strong as she aids Philippe.
Zemeckis makes great use of the 3D technology and composes long shots with lots of camera movement that details the depth and scope of the towers. The special effects are jaw-dropping as 1970s New York City is faithfully recreated digitally (the combination of Zemeckis’ choice of shot composition and the special effects make the walk itself quite the spectacle). The screenplay by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne frames the story as an almost whimsical heist film that builds up toward the famous walk. It is also a fascinating character study of a man trying to overcome incredible challenges and achieve the seemingly impossible (a familiar Zemeckis motif). Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography matches the tone of the film, and his lighting for the walk itself gives the sequence a surreal, almost heavenly look (contrasting the danger Petit was also in during it).
Naomi Shohan’s production design recreates a number of French locales as well as 1970s New York City, and Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costume designs reflect the clothing of the period. Colleen Quinton’s makeup design is first-rate (particularly the work that went into making Gordon-Levitt resemble Petit more). Jeremiah O’Driscoll’s editing keeps the film moving at a good pace, and Alan Silvestri delivers an emotional, jazzy score (complete with French flavoring). Zemeckis’ The Walk is a visually stunning character study based on a real-life person and an event that is still hard to believe to have happened (but yet it did). It features winning performances and outstanding 3D work that actually worked too well for some audience members (some supposedly suffered from vertigo after viewing the 3D during the walk sequence), and is also a loving tribute to the World Trade Center and its towers.