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“The Walk” is a triumph of fakery

Spectacle and magic in Robert Zemeckis’s new film

Nicholas Barber | October 2nd 2015

The first thing to say about Robert Zemeckis’s new film, “The Walk”, is that it didn’t make me sick. That might not seem to be particularly noteworthy, given that most of us manage to watch films without having upset stomachs, but when “The Walk” was first screened in New York, not everyone was so lucky. Several viewers were dizzy, several felt their knees buckle, and, yes, one or two were reacquainted with the popcorn they had scoffed an hour earlier. You have been warned.

You should be especially wary of “The Walk” if you’re afraid of heights. The film dramatises Philippe Petit’s unauthorised high-wire walk between the twin towers of the brand new World Trade Center in 1974. For 45 minutes on August 7th, he strolled back and forth, 1300 feet above the streets of New York, with no safety net and no harness, while policemen stood on either tower, wondering what the hell to do. No footage was shot of this astounding stunt, but Zemeckis has recreated it in crystal-clear 3D. You can appreciate why some viewers felt a bit queasy.

The reason I wasn’t ill myself was that I didn’t believe for one moment that I was watching an aerialist balancing on a steel cable, a quarter of a mile in the air. It was always apparent that I was looking at a Hollywood actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, making his way between two computer-generated buildings, with computer-generated clouds above him, and computer-generated seagulls flying by. To me, the whole sequence was about as convincing as Gordon-Levitt’s wig and his phoney French accent. But I don’t mean that as a criticism. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Zemeckis tried and failed to make the feat seem authentic: the plane crash he staged in 2012’s “Flight” had me clinging to my seat for dear life. No, “The Walk” is a joy from start to finish precisely because it is so brazenly artificial. It’s true that the film is a celebration of a real event, but it is also a celebration of fakery and make-believe, of tall tales and conjuring tricks. That’s what distinguishes Zemeckis’s sprightly comedy from James Marsh’s brilliant documentary about Petit, “Man on Wire”. And that’s why it is so delightful.

Zemeckis and his co-writer, Christopher Browne, declare in the opening scene that they aren’t in the business of naturalism. They begin with Gordon-Levitt addressing the viewer while standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. As Petit demonstrates his sleight-of-hand, and Manhattan glows like Oz behind him, he announces that he is going to tell us his tale, and the film flashes back to his days as a street entertainer in Paris. It also switches to black and white—one of many reminders that “The Walk” favours dreams and pizzazz over humdrum reality. When colour does return to the film, it looks as if it has been painted on. And when Zemeckis employs 3D, he doesn’t use it to make the action onscreen more believable, he uses it to throw juggling clubs, balancing poles and arrows at the audience.

What the film is showing us is the rose-tinted memories of a twinkle-eyed showman—and it’s directed by a twinkle-eyed showman, too. That’s why it doesn’t matter that Petit’s girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) and the other supporting characters have so little to do, or that Ben Kingsley is so cartoonish as Petit’s wire-walking mentor, or that the French protagonists spend so much time speaking English. It’s a fairy tale. For a more factual account of the enterprise, you can always rewatch “Man on Wire”.

Once Petit has gathered his conspirators and set up camp in New York, the movie is even more open about its movieness. Alan Silvestri’s bongo-heavy music establishes that the film is now an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist caper, and Petit is happy to play his role in it: scouting the almost-completed World Trade Center, he puts on disguises, prints fake IDs, and talks about all the “spy work” he has to do before pulling off “the coup”. And then, when he finally steps out on the cable bridging the 140-feet-wide chasm, it isn’t the breathtaking danger that Zemeckis emphasises, but Petit’s pride in putting on the greatest show on earth. He even kneels on the wire—his salute to the audience far below.

Beforehand, and afterwards, other characters try to assign deeper meanings to the escapade. One says that it’s about rebelling against authority, another says that it’s about giving a soul to the inhuman, looming towers. Petit himself refuses to offer any answers, but, in its exuberant playfulness, Zemeckis’s film presents its own theory. The walk was all about fun, spectacle, magic—and nothing else. That’s what “The Walk” is about, as well.

The Walk Out now

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