The Walk is being compared to Gravity in a recent spate of fairly misleading TV spots, intense Inception-esque music set to critic quotes that swoop in to say things like DOES WHAT GRAVITY DID FOR SPACE! It’s clear what they’re trying to say: this is more an experience than a movie. It’s partially true, and certainly the most affecting parts of the film are those which purport to be more than film. Lots of movies try to push for that as a selling point, and the floating and swooping superlatives in the Walk trailers recall all of those other movies that are GUARANTEED TO BLOW. YOUR. MIND.
Robert Zemeckis handles the majority of the story of Phillippe Petit, the eccentric and restless French high-wire artist, with much the same eccentricity and restlessness as characterizes his subject. There’s voiceover narration hosted by a Statue of Liberty-bound Petit (get it? France!), there’s a black-and-white sequence, a few flashbacks, a few time lapses, a few time jumps. The Walk, like Petit’s mind, is all over the place. At times the quick pace is paradoxically dragging, but I suppose such is the case for Petit as well. He’s bored by ropes strung between lampposts and trees. He wants a true high wire. He wants to see New York, to see the towers. He wants to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains.
But when the part you’ve been waiting for finally arrives any qualms with the franticness, or with the boringness, or with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s French accent all fade away. During this extended sequence The Walk, like Petit’s mind, is purely balanced. And whatever your resistance to TV spot praise blurbs promising BLOWN MINDs, this part of The Walk will actually do that. It might make you ill (as it has to preview audiences in several screenings) or it might make you sweat (as it did me), but it will doubtless make Petit’s experience your experience.
And Petit’s experience is not one of fear. He’s afraid, sure, and no matter how many times he refuses to say the word death or states that he is totally unafraid you always get the sense that there’s a part of him that is. He often admits it when doubts creep into his head. But his walk between the Twin Towers is largely triumphant, and Zebecks not only conveys that with sweeping aerial shots and orchestral swells but allows us that triumph as well. If The Walk were directed by someone else, we’d probably get the Inception-esque score from the trailers and a sequence where a gust of wind pushes Petit off the wire and he grabs the wire at the last moment, dangling there 110 stories above his death, people screaming on the ground below, two of his fingers slipping dramatically, a shoe falling, the drums beating profusely as he hauls himself up the wire and regains his balance in a majestic show of manliness.
That never happens. Petit is beautifully composed for almost the entire duration of his epic walk, and yet Zemeckis and Co. still somehow make the sequence tense and, for some, nauseating. There’s very little fabricated drama in that sense, and when Petit is on that wire The Walk absolutely soars. The film — excuse me, the experience — outdoes Gravity in that regard. The wire walk is more tactile, more palpable than the space adventure. You would think the question would be okay, but what’s the better film? The answer would probably be Gravity, which is both a film and an experience. The Walk emphasizes the latter, which is why long sections of the beginning of the film just feel like they’re setting the stage for the coming attraction. Because they are, whereas the entirety of Gravity is the experience.
But the experience is more important here, and it’s incredibly important that Petit’s experience become ours. The poignancy of the end of the film only works if we have the memory of that wire-walk too. The WTC Towers are obviously treated with more explicit deference here, but The Walk also has a place in American cinema in that regard. Three Days of the Condor dramatically featured the towers a year after their completion; the King Kong remake ditched the Empire State Building in favor of the WTC; they’re a prominent part of Escape from New York. New York credit sequences from Shaft to Black Rain to Night Shift to Home Alone all absorb the skyline’s beauty and pass it off as the movie’s beauty. And sometimes, in a rare and exciting instance, it works.
Petit will always and forever be on the wire. He visits the observatory (“alone”, he claims) and watches the strands of silver metal reform across the void, unifying the towers. The sentiment at the end of The Walk is that he’s not alone, that we’re always and forever on the wire as well, having just experienced the journey in a condensed two-hour film format. And in that The Walk stands tall as a tribute, too, because those two hours are only the most recent two in a long history of respect and honor — explicitly or otherwise — for the WTC Towers of New York City.