In 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit walked across the Manhattan skyline on a tightrope (actually a steel cable) strung between the soon-to-be completed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. His caper to run a wire between the towers and his epic crossings (eight times!) were the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on a Wire.
The Walk, a more recent fictionalized version of the same story, is director Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to recreate the event as well as send a valentine to New York in general and the World Trade Center in particular.
I say fictionalized, but The Walk is more of a fairy tale whose mirthful nature is exemplified by the main character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrating his story from atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty. As flashbacks show us Petit’s upbringing in France, his discovery and falling in love with wire-walking, his mentorship by uber-grump Papa Rudy (played by Ben Kingsley), and his teaming up with friends to cross the towers of Notre Dame and then the Trade Center, Zemeckis’ Paris and New York bore the same relationship to reality as Hill Valley of Back to the Future did to actual 1950s small towns.
But just as this make-believe moved from wearing out its welcome to getting downright annoying, the film generated some genuine magic in its recreation of the walk itself. But even here, I couldn’t help noticing how much the steady and careful crossings in The Walk contrasted with footage of the actual event shown in Man on a Wire where Petit taunted the cops waiting for him on both ends of his wire by dancing back and forth before crossing the distance between the towers yet again.
I suspect that this lack of fidelity was the result of limitations in CGI technology (or F/X budgets). In fact, at certain angles the traversing Petit resembled nothing so much as a video game character that was still in the process of rendering.
All this fakery would have been less of a problem if the non-fiction story upon which the film was based was not so well known or well documented elsewhere. The filmmaker’s attempt to romanticize buildings that met such a tragic fate in 2001 presented further problems, although not ones for which Zemeckis should be held liable.
For Hollywood, like the rest of the nation, has never really come to grips with the magnitude and meaning of 9/11, which is why we retreat to the story of Petit or films like World Trade Center (which turns the horrific events of 9/11 into a formula story built around the epic heroism of firefighters) to help us avoid confronting the reality of an attack that left thousands dead and the world permanently changed.
Ben’s response: I think that the movie was just edgy. That is to say different and weird for the sake of being different and weird. I’ll admit that the scene on the wire was pretty cool, and one of the only reasons I don’t totally regret watching the movie. It was just stupidly written and childish, and that’s not to mention the long and so melodramatic scene where they set up the wire. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I think that would’ve made this overly dramatic film much more difficult to like.