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The Walk

The Walk

Sometimes you just really need to have a good lie down

dir: Robert Zemeckis


The Walk. The Walk? What a supremely banal title!

How can you spend millions upon millions on a movie and give it such a simplistic title, eh?

Well, maybe, just maybe, Robert Zemeckis is more concerned with bringing a bizarre moment in New York history to life more so than whether there’s any actual interest in the potential audience for such an extravaganza based on a snazzy name.

This isn’t to be confused with another recent flick called The Walk which was about a completely different subject, that being the Camino pilgrimage across Spain that the faithful and the stupid take part in every year. That one was directed by Emilio Estevez and starred his father Martin Sheen. Charlie Sheen was… otherwise occupied.

This is about an altogether different kind of walk, and is unavoidably based on a true story. The reason I say “has to be” is not just because it is, but because there is absolutely no other way such a story could have been told had it not been true. It’s too bizarre otherwise.

The reason is, other than being about this allegedly famous “walk” between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, something which Americans are understandably a bit touchy about, the fact that those towers are no longer there means this flick is about more than just the walk itself.

Far more eloquent and dastardly scoundrels than myself have better articulated or more dishonestly waxed rhapsodical about what those 9/11 attacks meant to the US, and the horror that ensued for the rest of the world. At the very least, I think it’s a safe bet to say that the destruction of the Twin Towers and the deaths of over 3,000 Americans has left an indelible wound on the nation’s psyche. Art, if we can dare to ascribe that lofty word to something as commercially driven as a big budget Hollywood movie, can be about mourning that which is lost, or summoning up / exorcising the demons of the past, so why not this strange ‘little’ film and its evocative subject?

I say ‘little’ because despite the fortune that must have been spent on this, its scale, its scope is quite narrow. Its intention is to basically cover exactly the same ground covered by the James Marsh documentary Man on Wire that previously covered this same chap (Philippe Petit) and what he did (walked on a tightrope somewhere infamous). But of course the difference is that history is never as appealing to us unless it’s explained by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and accompanied by the swelling strings of an orchestra to tell us exactly how we should be feeling at any given moment.

At first as this smiling, bewigged and contact-lensed chap begins muttering to us in heavily French-accented English, I wonder as to what the hell they were thinking. But then you get used to it. After all, he’s talking to us charmingly perched as he is on the side of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, as we see the twin towers in the distance.

Aren’t they, like, no longer with us?

The towers themselves are always presented like glowing tributes to themselves. What happened to them ultimately is never mentioned. Does it really need to be? Is there anyone who doesn’t know why they no longer celebrate / blight the New York skyline with their presence?

That’s probably the most tasteful element of the production: to mourn their loss and their absence without having to get into the nightmare their destruction brought upon the rest of the world and the people that were within them.

Even as it exists as a celebration of them, the essence of what the film is trying to celebrate remains entirely abstract, no matter how many charmingly accented words Gordon-Levitt flings in our direction. If you want to understand why Petit had to walk the towers, what it meant to him, or what it meant to the world, well, maybe you’ll get something of an understanding. As for why we should care, that remains elusive at all times, as it perhaps should.

The reason, for me, is that whether the flick succeeds or not in telling its story (which it does, being “guy walks between Twin Towers in 1974”), the essence of why it was important is hard to grasp. Like surfing the perfect wave, like painting the perfect cherry blossom, like climbing Everest, these achievements are by their very definition pointless. They’re utterly pointless endeavours, regardless of whether they can personally resonate with us or how hard they are, or because of how hard they are. I can’t say that I really grasp Petit’s actions based on this flick, but I can see why this walk was important to him.

That’s probably enough, I guess. This chap has this burning desire, from the moment he sees the towers in a newspaper photo before they’re even finished, to walk between them.

Maybe it’s a guy thing. It’s a way of marking his territory, of putting his mark on both “it”, whatever it is, and linking himself with a famous landmark.

The man we are shown here is charming and garrulous, but not someone who performs because he likes crowds. He distinctly separates himself from those (like the circus performers he learns from) who perform for money or the adulation of crowds. He wants crowds when he performs his walks, but only because he needs his efforts to be witnessed, not because he needs their approval. If anything he has contempt for the venomous rabble, which is entirely appropriate if you’re a walking French cliché.

Or so he claims, multiple times. It makes sense, given his history. His walks, his high-wire act, are an artistic act themselves, he feels, beyond what people expect to get from watching someone defy death at a height for nebulous reasons. He doesn’t do it for them, or for money. It’s entirely for himself, the arrogant sod.

Philippe virtually trains himself, by his own reckoning, but needs to be taught the nuts and bolts, the technical aspects, by an old pro called Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley), of indeterminate accent and mysterious origins. Papa Rudy leads the wire performers at Le Cirque that first dazzled the young Petit, and, really, you can argue that Kingsley is over-qualified for such a minor role, but honestly, what the fuck is going on with that accent, Sir Ben?

He varies from sounding like he has a knife in his mouth he’s worried he’s going to cut his tongue on, to maybe carrying bird eggs in there hoping not to break them yet. Italian? French? Russian? Bulgarian? Kazakhstani? Which accent, for the love of St Meryl, patron living saint of actors doing difficult accents, are you going for?

The answer is “Yes, that is true.”

It’s a minor thing. He’s not in it that much, but I guess he tries to imbue his scenes with whatever that quality is that he brings consistently to everything he does.

I’m not saying it’s good, just that it’s, you know, there.

Everyone else in this flick is a minor thing, including the French love interest with eyes so large she looks like she’s out of Japanese anime, or a major cliché, whichever, but it doesn’t really detract from what goes on too much. We don’t really need complicated backstories for the various “accomplices” who help him in his endeavour. Since there’s not that much to tell about his life, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on the actual set up of the “coup” itself. He keeps referring to his plan as the “coup”, which encompasses both a word instead of “heist” and this idea that he’s somehow going to conquer or takeover either the towers or New York by doing this.

I have to admit that the set up was engaging to me (definitely not to my partner, who thought the flick went downhill dramatically about a third of the way in, before picking up again at the end), and that the elements of how it was done logistically was fascinating, even as it made it seem like a pure folly that should never have succeeded. When I already know the outcome, the how can be majorly interesting, especially when the why still remains out of reach.

When we get to the actual walk itself, finally, as you would bloody well hope, it looks staggeringly amazing, both awe-inspiring and terrifying. I’m aware that this was initially filmed in IMAX-style 3D, suffice to say I did not get to watch it in that hallowed, very expensive format, but it still looks quite amazing. I won’t say that it looks flawless, because that provokes a person’s natural bastardry reflex to point out all the shortcuts or flaws, but it’s quite amazing all the same. I’m guessing it’s mostly CGI and some actual models/built sets, and some plasticine / gaffer tape / chewing gum.

Whatever they did, it delivers. It induces vertigo in the viewer, which is no mean feat, especially since I rarely if ever recall ever feeling that from watching a movie, not even when I watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

When he walks, when he finally walks, it’s sublime. But almost anti-climactic, not only for him, but for us too. He’s thinking (in voiceover) “This, this was it? This is what it was all for?” And then he has to find ways to make something incredibly difficult and monumentally dangerous even more dangerous. They find someway to imbue additional tension to something that was already filthy and overflowing with the stuff.

This is perhaps not an important film. It perhaps doesn’t do anything more important than what the documentaries about the same event achieve, other than give us a phantasmagorically vivid depiction of what it might have looked liked. And it makes us spend two hours with a charming but clichédly arrogant French guy, which is hard for any audience to handle.

But it does look amazing, it does resurrect those long-gone towers, and it ends on such an elegiac, wistful, hauntingly perfect note as Philippe explains about the lifetime pass he’d been given by the building manager, that you can’t help that it honours the lost without having to schmaltz everything up or bathe the flick in the patriotic bullshit you’d dread.

8 times I still don’t get it but I know it was amazing for some reason out of 10

“This. Is. Impossible. But I am still going to do it.” – The Walk