9/11. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. It’s impossible for people to look at those buildings and to see anything other than the horror that occurred nearly 15 years ago. There is; however, another story, a true story, regarding the towers that took place in 1974. A French wire walker, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), mesmerized New Yorkers one August morning as they looked to the skies and saw Petit perform an extended walk between the North and South Towers of the WTC. It’s a story that’s the antithesis of 9/11. It’s a dream, Petit’s coup. It’s a story of hope, ambition, bravery and wonder and Robert Zemeckis brings it to glorious fruition in The Walk.
I think the spectre of the towers and all they hold in the American psyche, combined with a packed quality schedule of fall movies the likes of which we have not seen in years, may be the reason The Walk has underperformed at the box office. I wish I could have seen it in IMAX 3D, as it is I saw the very last showing of the film before it left my local theater. I know from friends that it was a whole different level of amazing when those dizzying heights Petit mastered were rendered in 3D, but I can tell you that the film doesn’t need that to stand out. My audience and I were enraptured from the beginning and, though it was a small crowd, it got huge applause at the end.
Zemeckis has been in the popular zeitgeist this week as we passed the date that Marty McFly journeyed to in Back to the Future (brace for it) 30 years ago. The mark of a great director is that they do not stagnate; they continue to grow, experiment and perfect their craft. In this regard, Zemeckis has proved himself to be one of the most underrated directors of our time. Yes, he took a decade to fiddle with the creepy animation that produced The Polar Express, but he returned to live-action with a stunning film in Flight and The Walk, while it doesn’t have the thunderous performance Denzel turned in as an addict pilot in Flight, is an even better film.
The Walk is Zemeckis’ film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to become one of my favorite actors and is absolutely commanding as Petit, but Zemeckis is the star of this film. He’s throwing every trick in the book out there: IMAX, 3D, unique visual angles, the taut pacing of a heist movie leading to a transcendent performance in which he takes us out on the wire with Petit. Then he frames the whole movie by breaking the fourth wall and having Petit talk to the audience from atop the Statue of Liberty. It’s a risky choice, one that could have taken audiences out of the flow of the movie, but Gordon-Levitt holds you as the storyteller and somehow the move never feels contrived. The rest of the cast is mostly unknowns, but Ben Kingsley, who I have to say again may be the best supporting actor of our age, gives a wonderful little performance as Petit’s mentor.
Some stories are so audacious, so ridiculous that all you have to be is true to the reality and put the audience inside of it. I rewatched Argo recently and was re-captivated at how Ben Affleck accomplished that with another ridiculously amazing true story. Zemeckis frames, polishes and presents the story, but never gets in its way or forgets that it’s the star of the proceeding.
As the film drew to a close, I wondered, what could Petit have been feeling on 9/11 when he saw the site of his dream decimated by hate? I don’t know how Zemeckis could have addressed this any more beautifully or deftly than he did at the film’s close. This isn’t a story about 9/11, and he doesn’t let it upstage this triumph at the end, but he does give just a nod, just a hint to what our storyteller and the audience can’t help but think. In a fall full of riches, The Walk stands as tall as any film this year. If you can still catch it in theaters, it has my highest recommendation.