By nature, man is a beast who constantly strives to push boundaries. Personal boundaries. Cultural boundaries. Societal. It doesn’t really matter to us. If there’s a line in the sand, we dare to cross it. If there’s a no to be given, some rebel will inevitably scream “YES” in defiance. It’s what makes us what we are. It’s how we’ve gotten where we are. The Walk is a study in boundaries, and the limits some of us go to push them.
The film follows the dreams of French street performer Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he struggles to make a name for himself as an artist. His living is eked from the collection of change and small bills from tourists in Paris who gawk in wonder as his tight rope act, his juggling, and his mime performances. But Philippe is a man of ambition, discontent with a meager life of little notoriety. He pushes himself to new and bigger heights until, one day, he discovers the highest height of all. Reading a magazine he discovers the building of the Twin Towers in New York City and decides, then and there, that he will do the impossible and perform his tight rope act between the facades of those iconic structures.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the story has been told before. In 2008, the documentary Man on Wire reintroduced Petit to the world, showcasing his death defying artistic stunt in painstaking detail. The Walk differs little from the documentary, in terms of narrative. If you’ve seen Man on Wire then you’ve basically seen The Walk. What separates one from the other the most is in the cinematography.
Indeed, Man on Wire was limited in this way, unable as it was to reproduce the perspective of Petit’s stunning walk. Here, director Robert Zemeckis is able to digitally reconstruct the perspective between the towers with dizzying effect. Using IMAX 3D technology, The Walk showcases vertigo inducing shots of life on top of the world in ways that have previously been unseen. A few weeks ago, I mentioned how Everest had used this same technology in the best way since Gravity. After seeing The Walk, I feel like I should amend that statement.
There were moments watching The Walk where I found myself breathless—both because of the beauty of the shots and the very real terror I felt looking down. At times, I wondered if I wasn’t about to pass out from vertigo during the incredibly tense and beautifully rendered last half of the film. Zemeckis has never been shy about adapting to technological advances in the cinematic arts, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down with the latest batch of tricks available to him.
Much like Man on Wire, The Walk is presented as a sort of heist film, with Petit and his crew planning and executing the perfect artistic crime. It’s often as tense and convoluted as an Ocean’s 11 film, only here the thing being stolen is glory and acclaim. Zemeckis takes us step-by-step through Petit’s scheme, keeping the audience wondering just how the whole thing will pan out in the end.
At times, the film does get a little cheesy. The narration—structured as a recounting by Petit from atop the Statue of Liberty—often cheapens the story as a whole, and Gordon-Levitt’s affected French accent is occasionally hard to stomach. Still, as problematic as this occasionally gets, it never really detracts from the overall story or theme of the movie.
To fully experience the joys of this movie, you must shell out the extra dollars to see it in IMAX 3D. Though for much of the first half of the film the technique feels pointless and lacking, the final act—which recreates Petit’s walk almost entirely—will leave your jaw on the floor. It’s a stunning testament to the real stars of the film: The North and South Towers of the WTC Complex.
While it would have been easy to do, The Walk never outright pulls at the heart strings over the loss of the iconic structures on 9/11. Rather, it celebrates their existence as a testament of humanity’s creativity and ability to defy typical limitations. In a very real way, Petit’s stunt served as a sort of christening of the towers and his obstinate refusal to acknowledge the impossibility of his plan is a personification of the hubris it took to even build the towers. In this way, it’s less a memorial than a celebration. Man will always be confronted by the tyranny of the impossible, and every time man will scoff and laugh.
The Walk is now playing in IMAX 3D.