Two men are responsible for the fond memory that the World Trade Centre has become for the Americans. The memory part owes itself to Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the 9/11attacks and turned America into a land of xenophobes. The fondness comes courtesy Philippe Petit, a Frenchman whose death-defying act in 1974 made New Yorkers love the steel-and-glass behemoth.
At the time of its construction, the Twin Towers was quite like the horseshoe magnet of Manhattan: it polarised the public. Billionaires like David Rockefeller and city planners wanted the skyscraper to turn downtown New York into the world's financial capital. Against the project were almost everybody else: blue-collar workers who lost their jobs, hundreds of displaced store-owners, and culture buffs who lamented the death of the “Radio Row”, the area where the world's first tube radios were sold. "Who's afraid of the big, bad buildings?” asked Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic of the New York Times in her column. And she gave the answer herself: "Everyone."
Then came the Frenchman, an expert wire-walker who had proved his mettle in Paris. His burning ambition was to tie a steel wire connecting the top of the Twin Towers, and walk across it, without wearing safety belts. He referred to the mission as “le coup” and “the artistic crime of the century”. He was the kind of man, you could say, has wire in his belly.
How Petit came to realise his dream, and made America literally look up the Twin Towers, becomes the focus of the new Robert Zemeckis film, The Walk. And, much like Petit's feat, the film is a blazing display of bravura.
The Walk works largely because of two factors. One is Zemeckis. At 63, he has become an iconic director who has had his share of successes (The Back to the Future trilogy and the recent Flight) and failures (The Polar Express, anyone?). And he knows the difference between pushing the envelope and bulldozing it. At the hands of a younger, flashier director, The Walk could have become an exercise in form and style. Not with Zemeckis, though. He is, perhaps, the last of the old-school storytellers; in his hands, The Walk is as straightforward as the man at the centre of it.
The second factor that works is 3D. The Walk is that rare film that uses 3D to dramatic and narrative purpose—that, too, to great effect. The final act of the film, that shows Petit taking the walk of his life, has such soaring visuals that it almost becomes poetry in motion.
A lot of factors don't click in, though. As the leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives his all to be Petit: He wire-walks, flips cards, and fast-talks in French. But, despite his best efforts, his perennially sleepy-eyed face cannot reflect Petit's subversive zeal.
A bigger disappointment is the background score by Alan Silvestri, Zemeckis's long-time collaborator and one of the all-time greats. Silvestri does the musical equivalent of Gordon-Levitt's sleepwalking through the role. The best part of his background score comes towards the climax—and it's a Beethoven!
At 123 minutes, The Walk may feel like a slow film. There is little drama in the first half. The second, however, more than makes up for it. As you know, good things come to those who wait.
Postscript: “Skill is successfully walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center. Intelligence is not trying,” said Marilyn vos Savant, the American who was known for having the highest recorded IQ according to Guinness Book of Records, in the eighties. Savant (she was obviously not kidding about her surname) made her career as a wisecracking columnist and lecturer. At 69, she is retired and almost forgotten. Petit, three years younger to her, is now artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. The books and documentaries on his brand of subversive art have made him a cultural icon. And, with The Walk, he is now more famous than he was forty years ago.
Film: The Walk
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Charlotte Le Bon
Direction: Robert Zemeckis