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The Walk defies gravity and expectations

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The Walk isn't the only movie based on a gravity-defying true story in theaters right now, but its ultimate effect is somehow more melancholic than Everest's high body count. Robert Zemeckis brings the story of a Frenchman hanging a tightrope across the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to life in characteristically Zemeckian fashion. Which is to say, Philippe Petit's walk on wire is visually arresting if occasionally lacking in compelling narrative thrust.

Since phobias are defined as irrational fears, acrophobia probably shouldn't qualify as one. There's nothing unreasonable about avoiding heights; falling from them has a tendency to maim and/or kill. What Petit did, on the other hand, is the very definition of irrational. The Walk never shies away from this fact, but portrays his brazenness as that of a singular dreamer, the one-in-a-million madman who accomplishes what other earthbound mortals would never even attempt.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt — whose approximation of Petit's accent is distractingly bad — plays the top hat-wearing, unicycle-riding street performer from Paris with more joie de vivre in his juggling hands than most contain in their entire bodies. He's also kind of a dick, which is both one of his most interesting traits and one that The Walk spends the least amount of time exploring. The way he alienates his girlfriend and other supporters may cause you to root for the accomplishment more than the man. Had he failed, Petit would be remembered as reckless and arrogant, which he was — it's just that his success at his task allows us to look back at him as being justifiably so.

This story was already told in nonfiction form by the fine documentary Man on Wire, and anyone enamored of that account will be pleased to learn that Zemeckis takes few liberties with the facts. (He doesn't make such tasteful use of Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie no. 1" and glosses over the fact that one of Petit's first acts was to cheat on his girlfriend in celebration of his success, however.)

We see Petit discover his love of wirewalking at an early age, eventually enlisting the help of Ben Kingsley's itinerant ringmaster to learn the tricks of the trade; we see his lightbulb moment upon glimpsing an advertisement for the soon-to-be-built World Trade Center in a magazine; we see him put together a crack team of accomplices to help him accomplish his ill-advised, vertigo-inducing feat.

As with Matt Damon in The Martian, much of that accomplishment can be chalked up to his boundless optimism and can-do attitude. While clearly a crucial element of what he calls the "artistic coup of the century," it's not always the most dynamic thing to watch play out onscreen. Moments of crushing doubt are so few, far between, and fleeting that we'd rarely be given the opportunity to worry about him even if we didn't know how his ordeal ends. Whither the moments of existential despair?

Petit's declaration that "It's impossible, but I'll do it" reads as a more upbeat variant of absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on, I'll go on" as well as The Walk's de facto slogan. We always believe that he can do it, but never that it's impossible. True story or not, that's a problem. The setup is fleet of foot but lacks the spark of our monomaniacal protagonist.

Then he actually gets on the tightrope, some 1,400 feet in the air, and spends a thrillingly, excruciatingly long time walking back and forth between the Twin Towers. His movements are graceful, balletic, and absolutely terrifying; few will ever experience anything like it, but Zemeckis puts us right there with Petit to dizzying, adrenaline-pumping effect.

One of the film's main conceits is having Petit directly address the audience from atop the Statue of Liberty with the Towers in full view behind. Though a hokey technique, it comes to makes sense. Lady Liberty was a gift to us from the French, and Petit considered the World Trade Center a gift to him — something that, consciously or not, had been built specifically for his wire to be hung across.

It's here that The Walk reveals itself as perhaps the most subtle 9/11 movie yet, and one of the most moving. Petit completed his walk before the World Trade Center had officially opened, and in some ways he christened it, made it alive. Were anyone to even attempt such a stunt on a major skyscraper today, they'd probably be recorded in the act by a dozen different CCTV cameras and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. (Petit's punishment: perform a free show in Central Park for children.) It's not just the Twin Towers' physical absence that makes a similar feat impossible today.

During one of his direct addresses, Petit mentions that he was eventually given a pass to visit the World Trade Center's observation deck whenever he wanted. The man who issued it to him crossed out the expiration date and wrote "forever." As he tells us this, Petit knows that we know his pass actually expired a little more than 14 years ago. It's far from the saddest loss of that day, but The Walk does make a case for it being among the most symbolic.