If you could go back to one particular moment in history, what would it be? Someone (most likely the devil) must have asked Robert Zemeckis that question several times during his career and, in a way, many of his films could be described as different answers. In fact, the films Zemeckis is most well known for — the “Back to the Future” franchise — were a marvelous response to that very question. “Forrest Gump” was also one big riff on the query. Even Tom Hanks silently played it over and over in his mind as he sat on that desert island in “Cast Away,” wondering if there was a way he could alter his fate by going back to a pivotal moment or redoing an irrevocable choice.
That point is brought home with both soaring enthrallment and piercing sadness in Zemeckis’ “The Walk.” It takes us to a specific point in time and place: the top of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City on Aug. 7, 1974. The towers were spanking new, imposingly tall and had yet to endear themselves to New Yorkers — apparently some of the offices were still vacant. However, they soon got a memorable christening (more like a hug) from French tightrope walker Philippe Petit. Using just a cable wire and a balancing pole, Petit walked over the void from one tower to the other, a feat that remains his alone and, due to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, can never be duplicated.
Any discussion of Petit in the movies must reference “Man on Wire,” the multiple award-winning 2008 documentary by James Marsh. This earlier film is a totally different animal from Zemeckis’ production. It is earnest, sincere and uses real-life photographs of Petit’s feat, which is all that remains as proof of his crossing. “The Walk,” on the other hand, is an endless gasp-inducer. Zemeckis brings the weight of his Hollywood clout to bear — a full arsenal of CG, IMAX and 3-D — and recreates the details of the historic walk with surgical precision, and from multiple angles. That “walk” is practically hammered into the viewers’ retina and, when it comes down to lasting cinematic visuals (and last words), the film has a huge advantage over “Man on Wire.”
“The Walk” premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year, and there were media reports that some people collapsed in their seats (or walked out) because they couldn’t handle the vertigo. And now that “The Walk” is opening nationwide, the online hype is that the trailer alone is giving viewers extreme shivers or at least a ghastly pallor. I’m one of those people who got both.
The numbers alone make the head spin: Petit was suspended 411 meters above the ground carrying a specially designed balancing pole on a custom-made 200 kg cable. He walked that cable for a total of 45 minutes, saluted the gaping onlookers gathered on the street below, danced and even lay down on the wire. All of this is reenacted by Gordon-Levitt with meticulous accuracy — his performance in “The Walk” is probably his most stunning to date.
In 1974, Petit was just shy of his 25th birthday and by many accounts he was brash, arrogant and ambitious, combined with — in his own words — “an artist’s fragile sensibilities.” Gordon-Levitt captures the nuances of Petit’s personality and, more importantly, taps into Petit’s urgent need to go for a stroll some 400 meters above the ground.
Before crossing between the WTC’s two towers, he had walked between the two towers of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and the twin pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Watching Gordon-Levitt as Petit, you begin to see that his walk was a philosophical statement as well as a work of art. How like a Frenchman to demonstrate Descartes’ logic that though the physical body is always pulled to the center of the Earth by gravity, the mind may be a separate entity with its own agenda. In that sense, Petit’s walk was, perhaps, both a philosophical argument and the ultimate meditation session.