Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne
Right after Philippe Petit walked the line between the Twin Towers, the question on everybody’s lips was ‘why’. Why would any man in his right mind attempt such a reckless and dangerous feat? Why would he go to such great lengths as to break the law and endanger his own life just to perform a stunt? Why did this matter to him so much that he was willing to risk everything to achieve it? In response he simply answered, “there is no ‘why’”. There are some things in life that are more than aspirations or ambitions; they are callings. Philippe himself may not quite know why he attempted this exploit (not in words at least); all he knew was that he had to. Through his story the film explores this idea of the impossible dream and the kind of dedication, faith and madness it takes to pursue it.
Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a French street performer who first hears of the World Trade Centre while flipping through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. In that moment he is suddenly struck by inspiration and hereby makes it his mission in life to one day walk on a tightrope between the two tallest towers in the world. He recruits a team, including a street performer called Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), to fly to New York with him so that he might realise his goal before the construction of the towers is complete. Using the lessons and techniques taught to him by the circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), Philippe overcomes legal and personal obstacles to perform one of the most daring and insane deeds in recent history.
For the sake of full disclosure I should point out that I haven’t seen Man on Wire. Therefore this film marks my official introduction to Philippe’s remarkable story, and what an introduction it is. For me this is easily one of the best-directed films of the year so far and is also some of the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen in a film. When Philippe walks on that wire with the great void and chasm between the Twin Towers silently and ominously encircling him, you are right there with him. I was practically clutching the sides of my seat holding on for dear life as Philippe gracefully treaded the thin line that separated him from a fatal fall. The film’s climax is a terrifying, thrilling and astonishing piece of cinema that also captures a profound moment of beauty and poignancy. As Philippe stands on top of the world and realises the sums of his ambitions there is a deep sense of perspective as he comes to understand what this accomplishment really means to him. Philippe may not have known or was unable to explain his reasons for attempting this feat but whatever it was he was looking for, he found it.
As for the rest of the film, I really enjoyed it. One of the main criticisms I found amongst others was the film’s use of narration and its breaking of the fourth wall but, while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at times find it annoying or distracting, I actually think it works for the film. Philippe as a character is passionate, animated, arrogant, eccentric and reckless. He is therefore exactly the kind of person who would break the fourth wall and who would narrate his own story. The narration can be overbearing at times, but Philippe himself can be overbearing at times as well. That’s why I think the film’s style of narration works well at establishing and defining his character. The performance of Gordon-Levitt also does a magnificent job in this regard. The zeal and enthusiasm he displays as Philippe is a lot of fun to watch and makes the character utterly irresistible. However the film does remain balanced in its view of Philippe, highlighting the irresponsibility, arrogance and madness driving his actions. Yet, while these traits are hardly his most admirable qualities, he probably couldn’t have achieved his dream without them. After all, you’d have to be some kind of crazy to even attempt a feat this irrational. It is an interesting character study of a wholly remarkable man.
It’s been over a week since I’ve seen this film and I still get a slight sense of vertigo just thinking about it. As a story the film is interesting enough, even if the supporting characters don’t get much focus or development, and I do think it is well told, even if the pacing is somewhat haphazard and the narration sometimes distracting. In the end though what really makes this film special is the actual walk itself. That is the moment when the film truly comes to life and flourishes on an immersive and breathtaking level. Watching Philippe walk the tightrope was one of the most astonishing cinematic experiences I’ve had this year and was worth the price of admission alone. Yet, as well as having one the most incredible scenes of the year, The Walk is also an engaging and entertaining tale of daring, conviction and aspiration and one that I would recommend to anybody (who isn’t acrophobic).