Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk is, first, a loving tribute to the World Trade Center towers, and second, a recreation of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between them. An illegal act that Petit could never have carried out with anyone’s official permission, the stunt has often been credited with imbuing the towers—unpopular at first among New Yorkers—with a certain je ne sais quoi, an essence, a spirit, that convinced the notoriously skeptical Big Apple to view its imposing height and utilitarian bulk with warmth, not malice. Not every giant in a city’s skyline gets that treatment; just ask a sample of New York City residents about the 75-story One57 skyscraper in Midtown, which for most of us expresses only dizzying wealth and unattainability. If architecture is politicized, and One57 is a badge of the world’s elite, then Zemeckis’s film argues that the Twin Towers, recreated not just as daunting spectacle, but in physicality and limitless detail, belongs to the awestruck audience. Which is to say, everyone.
Integrated with the long middle section of The Walk that depicts Petit’s scheming and conscripting of accomplices—he embraces the impropriety of his design, referring often to it as a “coup,” hinting simultaneously at “de grace” and “d’etat”—is a compendium of different images of the towers, as many as one film could expect to contain and still tell a coherent story. When Petit finally encounters the South Tower in person, he touches it not with his hands, but with his forehead, as if attempting to forge a telepathic link. Focused on his plan with fanatical single-mindedness and near-religious zeal, Petit hardly seems to notice the towers, except either as a series of obstructions (a crucial freight-elevator trip is denied to him by a bullish foreman) or as the proscenium for his performance. Zemeckis notices everything Petit is blind to, and the middle section of The Walk is an immersion in the World Trade Center as a reality: a place where people work, a sculpture of steel, concrete, and glass still being finished, and a newcomer to Lower Manhattan’s then-underdeveloped skyline.
The Walk also works as a catalogue of all the strange activities one could carry out in and around the World Trade Center, without arousing suspicion, prior to September 11. Petit and his accomplices prowl around the buildings, wearing a variety of disguises, taking photographs, and behaving strangely. Attempted today, such conduct by foreign visitors would result in a visit from serious men carrying guns and badges, and very likely a complimentary plane ticket back to Gay Paree, or, worse, indefinite detention. Not much younger than Petit himself, Zemeckis would have known this more “innocent” time as a young man, and he recreates it with a clarity that ensures its inconceivability in a post-9/11 world isn’t lost on the audience.
In order to make the walk, and in order for it to matter to him, Philippe Petit has to comprehend it as real and impossible. Robert Zemeckis teaches us the same lesson.
That covers the midsection of The Walk, up to the famous high-wire walk itself. The film’s first 40-odd minutes detail the events of Petit’s early life and training—partly self-taught, partly mentored by Rudolf Omankowsky (Ben Kingsley). Little that happens in this part of the film transcends the time-honored predictable tempo of the movie biopic: a small triumph is followed by a small setback, which is followed by a larger triumph, then a larger setback, and so on as the hero approaches his final test. Directed with all the Spielbergian razzamatazz one expects from the Forrest Gump auteur, the first chapter of The Walk may test one’s patience with its relentless pop and good cheer. But when the very first shot of the movie is a 3D extreme close-up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt shouting enthusiastically into the camera, you can’t say Zemeckis doesn’t put his cards on the table right from the start.
If the “early life” part of The Walk and subsequent New York chapter obediently comply with age-old biopic conventions, they also conceal a covert operation on Zemeckis’s part to train the audience to more fully understand height and scale. By the time he shows us his recreation of the famous feat, in a stunning, 15-minute sequence, we’ve gone from first understanding Petit’s intentions via an illustration in a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, through an ever more severe series of acrophobia-inducing exhibitions, to the main event. Along the way there’s a necessary progression that makes us mindful of Petit’s achievement by bringing him out and beyond ordinary human ability, in an easy-to-follow upward trajectory. Walking a tightrope set just higher than a hammock is kind of impressive and certainly conceivable, and it’s a logical upgrade that he next tries to walk a tightrope stretched over a lake. And then a pair of cathedral spires. And then the tallest buildings in the world. Petit’s first reaction after putting his head against the base of the tower is to express his vehement disappointment: In order to make the walk, and in order for it to matter to him, he has to comprehend it as real and impossible. Zemeckis teaches us the same lesson.
When The Walk delivers its final emotional payload, it’s an overwhelming vertiginous sensation of an entirely different kind: Breaking the fourth wall as he narrates his tale from the top of the Statue of Liberty, Petit shows us his lifetime pass to visit the World Trade Center observatory. The expiration date, he explains, has been crossed out and overwritten with one word: “forever.” The September 11 attacks are mentioned not once in the film, and as the final spoken word, “forever,” is followed by the final image, we see the towers nestled among their Lower Manhattan neighbors. As the image fades to black, they remain lit the longest. Superficially a film about a daredevil and his once-in-a-lifetime stunt, The Walk is, at its core, a film about a pair of buildings imbued by human spirit, superseding and, finally, outlasting all other concerns.