October 18, 2015
Back in 2008, I was able to watch a documentary entitled "Man on Wire," directed by Phillip Marsh. Based on "To Reach the Clouds," the memoirs of French daredevil Philippe Petit, it told of the time when he crossed the gap between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City back in 1974 on a high wire. That film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for that year.
One of the disappointments I recall about that amazing documentary was that there was no actual vintage film footage of Petit's epic WTC crossing itself. That big moment was only shown by way of dramatic still photographs. This year, "The Walk," a new feature film based on the same memoirs, will recreate the whole life story of Philippe Petit building up to that memorably historic walk.
It was 1974. Philippe Petit was a struggling street-wise juggler/high wire artist in Paris. When he comes across a magazine article about the newly-costructed World Trade Center in New York City, he made it his life dream project to lay a wire between the two towers and walk across it. He apprenticed with a noted circus highwire master, whom he affectionately called Papa Rudy. Together with his loyal friends Annie, Jean-Louis and Jeff, Petit planned and executed his daring caper painstakingly, by fair means or not. The film culminates in his thrilling and breathtaking crossing itself, 15 minutes of pure adrenaline rush 110 stories up in the sky.
A lot of the success of this film hung on the shoulders of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his performance as Philippe Petit. At first I had my doubts, but as the film went along, Gordon-Levitt had us all hooked in Petit's delusional ambition with his delightful "French" charm. I read he actually learned how to walk wires in eight days, under the tutelage of Petit himself, which was impressive. Although everything he did in this film must have been done in front of a green screen just a few feet off the ground, Gordon-Levitt confidently convinces us that he was actually walking across all those high wires throughout the film. The balance of gritty determination and Zen calmness on his face during the final walk added so much to the thrill of that scene.
Ben Kingsley can really do anything with even the smallest roles. His Papa Rudy was only in a few scenes but all of these really made an impressive mark. Standing out among his accomplices were Charlotte Le Bon because of her character Annie's pretty face, and Cesar Domboy because of his character Jeff's fear of heights.
As both Writer and Director of this film, Robert Zemeckis told the story of Petit with a childlike wonder, a quality of fantasy with which he also imbued his most famous films like "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future". It was this light and fanciful treatment of the material that made the film engaging and entertaining even for young viewers, despite the insane and illegal nature of the caper itself. Zemeckis is really a master of special effects in films. The sad fact that the real WTC towers are not really there anymore makes the visual effects of the walk in this film even more amazing and poignant.
Predictably, everyone will watch the film mainly for the titular walk itself. Zemeckis was able to create such palpable suspense from all those little bumps that happened on the night before, effectively building up the tension for the fateful walk itself. During the walk itself, it would be safe to assume that the whole audience hung on hardly breathing, with their hands tightly holding on to something or someone. We had butterflies in our tummies even if we only watched it in 2D. I can just imagine how much depth those scenes must have had when seen in 3D, or more so in 3D IMAX! 8/10.