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Philippe Petit's Twin Towers Stunt Is Dramatic Gold

But the cinematic version still misses the mark.


“Show, don’t tell” is one of the writing instructor’s most sacred maxims. This is especially true in film, where sight is at the core of the medium; in cinema’s early years, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton once competed to see who could make the silent film with the fewest subtitles. (Chaplin won.) It’s odd, then, that when making The Walk, a movie about one of the last century’s most astonishing feats of human spectacle, director Robert Zemeckis—a visual effects pioneer—would choose to do so much telling.

That dissonance is embedded in the structure of the film, which begins with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, standing on the crown of the Statue of Liberty against a New York skyline still adorned by the Twin Towers. Playing Philippe Petit, the real-life wire walker who in August 1974 crossed a steel wire he and his friends had strung between the twin towers, Gordon-Levitt, with a heavy French accent, guides us through his exploits from his perch atop Lady Liberty.

Ostensibly, the narration exists to give us insight into Petit’s thoughts during his outrageous stunt, but it’s a waste of a performer as talented as Gordon-Levitt. Instead of allowing the actor to, well, act, Zemeckis saddles Gordon-Levitt with narrating his actions as he undertakes them, from describing his piercing toothache to his manic joy upon first seeing a picture of the World Trade Center—as if we couldn’t tell when a person is in pain or gets excited. At one point, Petit’s narration interrupts the ongoing conversation, so that he says the same sentence in voiceover as in the scene, and we hear the same words twice, a millisecond apart.

The clash highlights the absurdity of the voiceover, a particularly bizarre choice given that The Walk is predated by Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary on the same subject. Documentaries have long suffered from talking-head syndrome, where a scarcity of footage requires directors to bring in experts and eyewitnesses who simply talk at the camera. Man on Wire overcame this obstacle through an elegant reenactment, the sheer spectacle of the high-wire act, and the real Petit’s charm as an interviewee. But The Walk, a fictionalized account free to dramatize events with the help of a large special-effects budget, has less trust in the power of its visuals.

That isn’t to say that The Walk is entirely without merit. After bouncing hyperactively through Petit’s early days as a street artist, the movie finds its rhythm when he and his accomplices begin planning their break-in at the World Trade Center, which they call “the coup.” Suddenly, the coming-of-age tale transforms into a heist movie, more Ocean’s Eleven than Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is easy to forget, given Petit’s universal acclaim, that what he did was against the law. The movie captures just how much had to happen before Petit ever set foot on the wire—the disguises, the logistics of shooting a wire from one tower to another, the smooth-talking needed just to sneak on a freight elevator. It’s dramatic gold, and the movie barrels forward, riding on the energy of these logistical puzzles that pieced together Petit’s walk. 

Then there’s the walk itself, an act Zemeckis conjures up in breathtaking glory. We have only photographs of the real Petit’s coup, and The Walk’s most remarkable moment is when it fills in the blanks between those snapshots. We know the entire time that Petit will be just fine, but it’s nonetheless a dizzying, gripping, breathtaking act. Staging the entirety of the walk—Petit crossed between the buildings eight times over the course of 45 minutes—also adds comedy to the artistry. The police surround Petit on the top of the towers, cuffing his friends, but can do nothing to arrest him. He toys with them, eluding their grasp time and again as they alternate between threatening him and worrying about him.

But even in its greatest moment, The Walk breaks the spell with an unnecessary narration about how Petit felt in that moment, how the sky looked to him, how a bird came soaring towards his head. This made sense in the documentary, where we couldn’t see the bird or the sky, but in The Walk, it’s pointless gimmickry. The only instance where this narrative device succeeds is in the very last scene, when Petit wistfully pays tribute to the Twin Towers. His walk is, of course, only the second most famous incident in World Trade Center history. Wisely eschewing any heavy-handed allusions to their fate, Zemeckis lovingly reconstructs the twin towers in the year of their birth, sparkling new and seemingly indestructible. The Walk is the story of one man’s dream, but it belongs to the towers New Yorkers once complained ruined their skyline, towers that inspired one man to literally walk among the clouds.