As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, adaptation is something that is prevalent in film and television. Something else that serves as material for media, however, is history. Whether it is recent events or ancient history, real life has offered all sorts of stories that help remind us that reality can be stranger than fiction. It becomes particularly interesting then when two different methods of telling a real-life story emerge on film: one is the path of a dramatized retelling, while the other is a documentary that examines a life or event. Such is the case with the tale of Philippe Petit, a French street performer and wire-walker who made his mark in 1974 by rigging an illegal high-wire between the towers of the World Trade Center and then successfully walking it. in 2008, his story was brought back to the public consciousness with the documentary Man on Wire, which chronicled the story by featuring interviews with Petit and his associates while showcasing reenactments that structure this tale in a similar fashion to a heist movie. Now, in 2015, director Robert Zemeckis has brought to the screen a dramatic telling of this daring feat, with his movie known simply as The Walk.
For those unfamiliar with the real-life story, Philippe Petit was a French street performer who had developed a skill for wire-walking and juggling. One day, when he went to a dentist to deal with a toothache, he saw an image in a magazine of the planned look of the World Trade Center in New York City. Struck by the picture, he found himself with a crazy plan: to rig a high-wire between the Twin Towers and then walk it. It was to be his coup, his greatest achievement. As such, he brought his girlfriend Annie Allix and photographer Jean-Louis in on the plan. From there, they gained allies in France and in New York, bringing them together as they gained valuable intel on the construction of the World Trade Center. Once they learned all they could, they set about preparing the high-wire during the dead of night. Though many obstacles and surprises arose that would challenge them, they managed to get everything set up. Then, a little after 7 AM, Petit began his daring walk between the towers, a feat which lasted 45 minutes and grabbed everyone’s attention.
The film itself is good, with a lot of delightful visual flourishes which help to add to the detail. Before getting into the visuals, however, it is worth noting the film’s star. Playing the part of Philippe Petit is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and this is absolutely his film. He captures a great feel for Petit, capturing the duality of the wire-walker. He captures his clownish charm, a twinkle in his eye as he convinces others of the impact that can come from such an acrobatic feat. He captures his megalomaniacal obsession, with his stubborn commitment to his dream that can frustrate those closest to him. He even captures the right physicality, his move and grace flowing naturally for one who has trained his body for precise movement. To go along with the great performance, the visuals of this film are stunning. Not only does Zemeckis use a number of neat tricks to add to the story and offer stunning sights made for 3D and for IMAX, he pulls off an incredible reconstruction of the World Trade Center. Whether in long shots with the buildings in the skyline or up close outside or in, the look of the buildings is nicely captured. Especially of note is the titular walk. Using his technological wizardry and directing skill, Robert Zemeckis captures the feel of the wonder and danger of his walk. Long shots that look down drive home the incredible height and danger that Petit courted, while Gordon-Levitt’s performance captured the skill and beauty which came with his walk. However, while there is plenty that is good with this movie, there are a few flaws.
Though Philippe Petit is well represented and Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a wonderful performance, the rest of the characters feel short-changed. Even Annie Allix, who was Petit’s girlfriend and thus close to him, feels a bit pushed to the margins for this film. Most of the other actors do their best with the material, but the result is that it feels like they’re set on the sidelines somewhat to give more room to Petit. Also, there is an aspect of this film that serves as a double-edged sword: namely, the film is a valentine to the World Trade Center. With its well-done recreation of the building and the exceptional presentation of the titual walk, the film captures not only its place in the public eye but also frames Petit’s high-wire walk in how it changed the perception of the Twin Towers. Prior to his walk, the World Trade Center was criticized and seen as a utilitarian-designed eyesore. After his walk, people began to like the towers and develop a certain fondness for the buildings. While it does show how people were struck by his walk, there’s a certain degree of the movie’s valentine presentation that works if you know of the towers prior to their destruction on 9/11. Without that context, it feels like there might be something missing to some of the audience. The film doesn’t specifically mention their destruction so as to keep the focus on the wonder and delight of Petit’s walk, but by making the movie as something of a valentine to these buildings without noting why they are to be remembered with that fondness or interest, it is as if there is a key component gone. Thus, while the movie is fun and a delight, one may be left noticing that something feels missing.
So, should this be avoided and Man on Wire seen instead? Personally, I feel that both this film and that documentary work with their respective choices. Man on Wire examines Petit’s daring walk on a personal level, looking at the mechanics of achieving this stunt while examining the experiences and toll on Philippe Petit and his accomplices. The Walk, meanwhile, looks at the same moment from a grander perspective about how Petit’s walk had left an impact and a new appreciation for a pair of buildings once derided as looking like giant filing cabinets. As for whichever you may like, I believe that you are a better judge of your personal tastes. Man on Wire is available on DVD and Blu Ray. The Walk is currently showing in IMAX theaters, with a general theatrical release starting on October 9th. If you do see The Walk, I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX.