Movie Review: The Walk (2015)
In Philippe Petit’s 2002 book, “To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers,” the epigraph is from Werner Herzog, who directed a documentary on Petit 10 years earlier. It reads:
Philippe, you are not a coward—so what I want to hear from you is the ecstatic truth about the twin towers.
Truth and ecstasy is exactly what we don’t get from Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk."
Did the filmmakers go wrong from the start? They have Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) telling us the story from the torch of the Statue of Liberty, with the twin towers and lower Manhattan in the background, which Patricia thought “dorky.” Or was it earlier—when they cast Gordon-Levitt in the role? Is he too American? Not imperious enough? They make him seem like us when Petit can’t be us. We look into the void and our legs turn to jelly and we feel the void’s pull. He looks into the void and gathers strength and rises.
The worst part? They make Philippe Petit seem like an amateur.
Surprising the sky
Here’s how they do it. In 1972, during a Paris street performance, Petit hurts a tooth and goes to a dentist, where, in the waiting room, he sees an article about the twin towers being built in New York City. This is where he gets the idea for “le coup”: walking between the twin towers. And that’s when he begins to take wirewalking seriously. He learns from Papa Rudy (Ben Kinglsey, wasted), practices a bit with his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, who is almost too pretty to be in movies) and his friend Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony); then he makes his debut, walking over a brook at an outdoor fair. He falls in. Oops. Then he pulls off the Notre Dame coup—walking between the spires of the ancient cathedral. And then it’s off to New York.
That’s right. In the movie, the twin towers walk is his third public performance.
The dental scene is correct but it took place in 1968, by which time Petit had been wirewalking for two years. From a 1999 New Yorker profile:
[By 1967], I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops. But I thought, “What is the big deal here? It looks almost ugly.” So I started to discard those tricks and to reinvent my art.
Falling into the brook? Never happened. Notre Dame did. So did the Sydney Harbor Bridge walk in Australia, which the film ignores. Anyone who’s seen “Man on Wire,” the Oscar-winning documentary from 2008, remembers the footage of Petit in that field in France with the wire strung between the trees: the insane shit he could do on it. He practically lived on that wire. So why do Zemeckis and first-time screenwriter Christopher Browne pretend otherwise? To increase tension? It’s so reductive it’s dull. Tension droops.
OK, but to the question everyone wants to ask: How is the walk itself? What’s it like to see that?
It’s not bad. But early reports about getting vertigo and throwing up? Nah. I was actually more wobbly-legged when Petit was on the edge of the building than I was when he was on the wire. Maybe because I can relate to being on the edge of a tall building. Maybe because once he lets go and steps out onto the wire we’re into the realm of superheroes. I know he won’t fall the way I know Superman won’t fall.
But they kinda fuck up the walk, too. Zemeckis sends a police helicopter to circle around Petit when 1) there wasn’t time, and 2) he’s a funambulist not King Kong. In the movie, the cops are abrasive when he’s on the wire and respectful when he’s back on the South Tower, when it was actually the other way around. In his book, he calls the cops “the octopus” for the way they grabbed him. He writes that the most perilous part of his six-year adventure was when he was being pushed down the tower’s narrow staircase by New York’s finest.
Why didn’t we get the press conference? The stupid questions and his imperious answers:
I do not appreciate the phrasing of most of the questions and make a point of correcting it as I answer: “No, I am not a daredevil, I am a writer in the sky!” “No, do not connect this with looking for a job—I do not need anything!” All I wish to describe is the beauty of seeing from such heights the city waking up, and my elation at reaching the clouds and surprising the sky.
In the movie, afterwards, he and his friends enjoy a meal in Chinatown, but in reality, elated, a folk hero now with all the perks that entails, he had sex with a beautiful woman he’d just met. It’s hours before he meets his friends. “Jean-Louis and Annie are angry,” he writes. “I’m hungry. I win.”
Throughout, the moviemakers tamp down Petit’s eccentricities, what makes him him. In the eighth chapter of Rick Burns’ documentary on New York, “Center of the World,” for example, there’s a great section on the walk. Petit provides voiceover:
So at some point the Gods—the god of the wind, the god of the tower, the god of the wire, all of those invisible forces that we persist in thinking don’t exist but actually rule our lives—might become impatient, might be annoyed by my persistence. ... So my intuition told me it was time to close the curtain of this very intimate performance.
All of those invisible forces that we persist in thinking don’t exist but actually rule our lives ... It's like something I'd hear from some sad woman at a party who's oversensitive about vegetables. But from Petit, I'll take it. Because he did what he did.
Something somebody would never see again
In case you can't tell, I get great joy from Petit's story—it's so brave and beautiful and pointless. He once said, “I would’ve felt myself dying if I’d had this dream taken away by reason,” and that’s key. Reason is the problem and unreason is the answer, and Zemeckis is all too reasonable in his storytelling. We needed a more unreasonable director. Someone like Herzog, or Scorsese, or Audiard.
I was hoping we’d get a clip of Sgt. Charles Daniels, too. Daniels was one of the octopi on the South Tower, a classic-looking 1970s Port Authority cop. And the way he described Petit to reporters afterwards was just this beautiful mix of Jack Webb-like police protocol and open admiration:
Well, after arriving on the rooftop, Office Myers and I observed the tightrope dancer—because you couldn’t call him a walker—approximately halfway between the two towers; and upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh, and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire. He then went down to one knee. We stepped into the background and I said for everyone to be quiet.
And at this time he laid down on the high wire, and just lackadaisically rolled around on the wire like. He got up. He started walking and laughing and dancing. And he turned around and ran back out into the middle. He was bouncing up and down—his feet were actually leaving the wire—and then he would resettle back on the wire again. Unbelievably, really, to the point that everybody was spellbound in the watching of it. And I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world.
Philippe Petit didn’t just do something that terrifies most of us, he made art out of it. Someday a filmmaker will do the same.