Tuesday 2 November 2021

Movie Review: The Walk (2015)

A biography of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, The Walk is an inspiring chase-the-dream story enlivened by breathtaking risks and remarkable cinematography.

In 1973, Parisian street performer and aspiring tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spots a magazine article about the construction of the mammoth World Trade Centre twin towers in New York City. He decides he must walk a tightrope between the two buildings, and starts planning to make his audacious dream a reality.

He embarks on a romance with fellow street performer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), befriends photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), and seeks mentorship from crusty circus tightrope artist Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). With the construction of the buildings nearing completion, Philippe relocates to New York for intensive reconnaissance and logistics preparations, and gathers a ragtag group of accomplices. He sets August 6, 1974 as the date of his unsanctioned stunt, but on the big day little will go according to plan.

Directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis based on Petit's book, The Walk is an exquisite recreation of a bold act of mad artistry. Gordon-Levitt as Petit narrates his story directly to the screen from atop the Statue of Liberty with the twin towers in the background. This playful narrative device mimics Petit's cheerful but seriously determined approach to his craft, and the film is infused with a maverick's spirit.

The opening chapters provide an interesting-enough but familiar backstory, Petit the only character provided with context, while Annie, Papa Rudy and the ever-expanding group of accomplices remain at the basic sketch level. Petit's personality is revealed through fairly mundane scenes from his humble family origins, early tourist performances, and interactions with Papa Rudy in the big tent.

The final third is dedicated to the walk itself, and soars to a whole other elevation. Petit and his crew have to execute a heist-like sequence to avoid security guards and set-up the rope without anyone noticing. Then with majestic elegance, Zemeckis, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and their special effects team master the dual challenges of buildings that no longer exist and creating the illusion of an actor walking a tightrope more than 400 metres in the air. The cinematic adventure in the void between the towers' two corners is one long astounding and heart-stopping sequence.

Running through the experience is the fundamental question of what drives an individual to absorb such risks. Remarkably, The Walk demonstrates an answer of exhilarating freedom. By the time Petit is near the clouds, his attitude is pure detachment from earthly constraints, and eternal oneness with two great buildings and a rope.

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