“To be on the wire is life – the rest is waiting,” opines Joe Gideon at the start of Bob Fosse’s 1979 film “All That Jazz.” That quote is attributed to Karl Wallenda, a circus performer who, ironically, died from a fall the year prior to that film’s release after a stunt performed with no net. Yet after watching Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” Gideon’s words seem more in the spirit of Phillipe Petit, the wire-walker who traversed a cord strung between the Twin Towers in 1974.
Though structured like a standard heist flick – and providing all the expected thrills that should come along with the genre – the film is about more than just a clever plan or a physical accomplishment. Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) similarly equates the wire with life, and his life is his art. The “coup,” as he repeatedly refers to it, makes for a fun exercise, but the plot to hang a wire between the Twin Towers is merely the means to the end of his performance.
Perhaps those who do not wish to think much into his daring piece deride Petit’s walk as empty exhibtionism or some kind of stunt that prioritizes style over substance. For this precise reason, he earns the sympathy and identification of co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis.
In “The Walk,” the subject and the storyteller are practically one and the same in their aesthetic philosophies. Both view spectacle as a component of art, not its opponent. There’s a reason Zemeckis opts for a variation of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” as Petit glides along his wire as opposed to dramatic, triumphant underscoring. For these two artists, the purest beauty comes from achieving the previously unthinkable while operating at the highest of stakes (Petit with his a hundred-story height, Zemeckis with a hundred-million dollar budget).
Zemeckis has long sought to push the boundaries of the cinematic imagination through the use of visual effects. In the 1980s, he found revolutionary ways to integrate live action and animation with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” More recently, Zemeckis devoted himself to improving the capabilities of motion capture technology in films like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” attempting to fully harness humanity into characters who can transcend bodily limitations. In “The Walk,” he employs CGI to perform perhaps his greatest feat to date: resurrection.
Zemeckis’ high-wire act is as follows: celebrate the legacy of the two World Trade Center towers while also paying due reverence to the innocent lives lost on that very same spot. He finds a reverent middle-ground informed by the irony that as he celebrates the metal that united the Two Towers, it was also a flying piece of metal that tore them down.
Still, “The Walk” is not a requiem mass for the fallen skyscrapers. Zemeckis positions Petit’s performance, which took place around the time that the buildings opened, as a sort of christening for the towers. It feels strange to be celebrating their birth, especially when the New York skyline is still adjusting to the nascent One World Trade Center, yet this also brings on a sort of unexpected catharsis.
That sensation might also be a necessary diversion for the stomach, which is likely to tie itself in knots at the sights that play out on screen. The titular walk, as patently staged as everyone knows it is, still packs a visceral punch to the gut. The camerawork feels choreographed by Zemeckis and cinematographer Darius Wolski, as opposed to chopped and edited per normal. This ethereal sequence puts the rest of the movie to shame, although no component of its fairly standard-issue exposition is quite as bad as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fake contacts. (They’re way worse than his accent.)
At the very end of the film, as Petit’s exploits hit the papers, a very subtle pan over a newsstand reveals what else grabbed headlines in August 1974: Richard Nixon’s resignation. It only flashes on screen for a brief second, but it speaks volumes about what “The Walk” achieves. Zemeckis believes Petit’s art is worth celebrating because it so powerfully demonstrates the human capacity for greatness when given lofty, idealistic goals to accomplish. The film itself, while somewhat shakier than Petit’s walk, deserves lauding for those same reasons. B+ /