The Walk: One man’s extraordinary risks

Frenchman Philippe Petit walked across a cable that had been illegally strung between Manhattan’s Twin Towers in 1974.THE WALK (PG)
Shanghai night field

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Guillaume Baillargeon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Screening: General release

Rating: ★★★

THE true story of Philippe Petit – the Frenchman who kept onlookers enthralled for 45 minutes while he walked, sat and lay on a cable strung between the tops of Manhattan’s Twin Towers in 1974 – was told in James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire (2008). It was a tale of a phenomenally brave and gifted obsessive, charismatic enough to draw others into helping him fulfil his lofty ambition.

But, like all obsessives, Petit found it hard to be grateful. And when it was all over, these loyal disciples fell to earth with a bump while he gave himself over to being adored by a much larger and louder audience.

Robert Zemeckis’ take on the Frenchman’s great adventure gets some of this right. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Petit is an impish charmer deaf and blind to anybody’s state of mind but his own. He crackles with nervous energy tempered, when necessary, by his mighty powers of concentration. But you get little sense of the hard-headedness that took him through six years of preparation.

Full of Gallic shrugs and merry montages, the early scenes have him as a whimsical clown working the streets of a Paris that looks as if it’s been plucked straight out of Amelie. Here, he meets Ben Kingsley as a circus aerialist extraordinaire and begins to learn from him.

Pretty soon he’s rehearsing for the big event with a wire walk between the spires of Notre Dame, and it’s not long before he’s off to New York with his devoted girlfriend, Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), and a small team of pals willing to risk jail to help him get to the top of the towers.

I was so pleased to leave behind Zemeckis’ cloying vision of Paris that I didn’t mind the speed of all this. But once we’re in New York, we switch genres with a suddenness that’s a little disorienting.

We’re now in a caper movie, with the shift in worlds signalled by a score reminiscent of The Pink Panther. The group of conspirators take on more recruits, including a couple of stoners who look as if they’d be felled by vertigo if they attempted to stand upright, and a hardware-store salesman whose talents as a fast-talker are to prove indispensable when the time comes for the group to bluff their way into the tower building, disguised as workmen.

Such an enthusiastic embrace of the story’s more farcical elements does toss up some easy laughs but putting the group on a par with the Keystone Cops also limits the degree of sophistication that the script is able to bring to the interplay between their personalities.

And there was plenty to talk about. As Marsh’s documentary revealed, the strains, fears and disagreements within the group constituted a drama within the drama. But Zemeckis glosses them over with caricature. He’s making a fable here and the only person he’s really interested in is its hero.

So it’s basically a one-man show, with Levitt keeping the others entranced with his demands, explosions and propensity for taking extraordinary chances. His practical, methodical side is there, too, but more often than not, it’s upstaged by his theatricality. And, like any case of extreme self-absorption, his soon begins to bore.

But all these irritations fall away once the group get inside the Twin Towers and we’re confronted by the enormity of the task they’ve set themselves. As the buildings are closing for the night, they have to smuggle in their equipment, which includes a 200-kilogram cable, and get it on to the roof. And having done that, they have to evade the security guard while they work with their teammates on the roof of the other building to rig the cable.

This is what Zemeckis has been waiting for. His hallmark as a director is his passion for visual effects and his use of CGI and 3D is dazzling. I’m pleased to report there’s no hint of the religious in the sense of sublime you feel in Petit’s kinship with space, air and the slender cable beneath his feet. Even so, it is as if he’s consorting with angels.

The last shot is a homage to the lost towers, standing burnished by sunlight, and there’s a certain poignancy in it. But it’s Petit you’re thinking about.