On the night of August 6, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit and a group of friends rigged a series of steel cables between two towers of the World Trade Center. When the sun came up the next morning on August 7, Petit climbed out onto the cable and did a death-defying, forty-five minute hire-wire act 1350 feet above the streets of lower-Manhattan before the rain finally forced him to come inside. Petit’s walk, which is sometimes credited with redeeming the World Trade Center in the eyes of most New Yorkers, has already been the subject of one film, the acclaimed Man on a Wire. Since most of the images of the real Philippe in the act of walking between the World Trade Center are still photos, however, the story was ripe for a semi-fictional dramatization.
The Walk, which was directed by Forrest Gump’s Robert Zemeckis, somehow manages to be both a great film and a terrible film. The critical consensus, that The Walk has a great second half marred by a dull first half and a terrible performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, misses the point. Yes, Levitt hams it up with a fake French accent, which some dialect coaches argue is perfectly authentic, but fake French accents, as we’ve learned from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are fun. If you’re an American pretending to be a Frenchman, you’d might as well give it the whole Pepe Le Pew. Levitt, while clearly a man in his thirties and not a twenty-four-year-old, manages to project the kind of athleticism you wold expect from a man who could walk for forty-five minutes on a steel cable suspended 1350 feet in the air. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not a problem. He’s an asset. The first half of The Walk isn’t inspired cinema, but it serves its purpose. Petit learned how to wire walk when he was sixteen. He walked the between World Trade Center Number One and World Trade Center Number Two when he was twenty-four. That’s not a lot of time, as the opening of the film makes clear.
The problem with The Walk isn’t Joseph Gordon-Levitt or the uninspired opening in Paris. It’s that the film is more libertarian than anarchist. As you might expect from the right-wing Robert Zemeckis – Forrest Gump was a dreadful piece of reactionary propaganda – the spirit that presides over The Walk is not Peter Kropotkin but Ayn Rand. Part of the fun of a good heist film is watching how a team of conspirators cases the target, cracks their security code, then comes together and pulls off the job. When Jean-Pierre Melville, who actually called himself a right-wing anarchist, made Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le flambeur, he knew what teamwork looked like. The Walk — which purports to be a heist movie about a fun loving group of anarchists who come together to pull off “the coup” of infiltrating the security of the World Trade Center — is mainly about the need to respect the superman and get out of his way. Indeed, in Zemeckis’ imagination, Petit’s team, which includes a stereotypical, dumb American stoner and Jeff, a French math nerd who’s terrified of heights, is almost worse than useless.
Jeff in fact becomes the The Walk’s surrogate for its audience. Don’t get me wrong, the second half of The Walk is filmed with so much skill I literally had to turn it off several times to recover my composure. There are reports of people getting vertigo and throwing up during its original theatrical run in New York. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t see The Walk, even at home. The problem is that a good film would have put us in the shoes of Philippe Petit, not his useless assistant. Instead of letting us share the hero’s triumph, The Walk reduces us to terrified spectators. Zemeckis doesn’t liberate us. He manipulates us.
That’s too bad because, in spite of everything, I still think The Walk is the best film ever made about the World Trade Center, and, in some ways, the best film ever made about 9/11. As we watch Petit walk from tower to tower, turn around, then walk back again, it’s impossible not to think about people who chose to fall to their deaths rather than be burned alive. Indeed, the most terrifying thing about The Wire is how vividly it drives home the idea of being stuck 1350 feet above ground with no chance of being rescued. The police are not only useless. They almost get Petit killed. An NYPD helicopter buzzes him overhead. Police officers reach out their hands to “rescue” him in such an absurd manner we half suspect that the reason he stayed on the wire for so long was because he was afraid that some fool of New York City cop would get in his way. He solves that problem by tossing them his balancing pole, which knocks them to the ground long enough for him to jump back onto the roof to safety, and to his arrest. The second half of The Walk is brilliantly done, but it’s really not much fun. We share none of Petit’s exhilaration. The longer The Walk goes on, the more we want it to end, for Petit to get the hell off the roof before he has an attack of nerves, falls and ends up a smashed pile of flesh and bones on the sidewalk below. While Petit is dancing in the sky like an aerial John Galt, we become, in effect, the cops, ordinary people without the courage or the imagination to do anything so inspired.
At the end of The Walk, Petit tells us that the director of the World Trade Center gave him lifetime pass to the observation deck. We can’t help but reflect on how Petit is still very much alive, but that the World Trade Center is gone. We remember the people who died with it.