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Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le bon
Director: Robert Zemeckis
There are two stars in Robert Zemeckis's new movie The Walk - Joseph Gordon-Levitt who stars as wire walker Philippe Petit, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center themselves. Undoubtedly, many people who have seen the trailer or an ad for the film will go just to see what sort of magic Zemeckis performs to bring the towers to life.
But the story transcends the towers. Petit is a larger than life character, a visionary young street performer in Paris, an entertainer and a rebel. While at a dentist's office still in his teens, he sees pictures of the proposed World Trade Center and becomes obsessed with it. He tears the picture from the magazine and stuffs it in his pocket.
Over the next few years he develops his skills and starts to plan. He is no circus aerialist, though the legendary Rudy Omankowski, Jr. (played by Ben Kingsley in the film) of The White Devils tightrope walking troupe becomes his mentor. He is the equilibrist version of a David Blaine (the celebrated street magician). He is a street performer. A public space performer. And he doesn't have any use for permits. As a street performer he is constantly rousted by the police.
Petit gathers together a cadre of supporters to help him plan and execute his mad scheme to string a wire between the Twin Towers and to walk across them. The first recruit is his girl friend Annie Allix, charmingly played by Montreal actress Charlotte Le Bon. The film was largely filmed in Montreal.
Before the New York escapade, Petit hones his chops with preludes, first running a wire between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and walking across them (1971). And following that up with a walk between two pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia (1973). Both, like the Twin Towers feat, were done without permission, planned and set up in secret overnight, surprising the morning crowds. Both times he was arrested, and he nearly plunged to his death in Sydney when the police cut one of the guy ropes. The Sydney adventure is not shown in the movie.
For the Notre Dame coup (he liked to call his clandestine escapades "coups"), an accomplice tossed a ball with a fishing line attached from one tower to Petit at the other. Then the line was used to pull increasingly larger cables until the rigging was set up.
The WTC towers were much farther apart - 140 feet, so another method needed to be devised. They toyed with radio-controlled model planes but settled on a bow and arrow.
Although most floors were occupied, the top floors of the World Trade Center were largely a shell in 1974 when Petit made his walk. He wanted to complete it before construction was finished as access was easier during the construction phase.
The event took a lot of planning. Heavy equipment had to be carted up, including a 450 pound steel cable, blocks and tackle, winches, and wired radio communications (so the police couldn't listen in). Petit and his crew surveilled the buildings for months, even hiring a helicopter to shoot aerial footage (thought that is not shown in the film). They went in under various disguises.
On the evening of Aug. 6th, 1974, the team executed their plan with considerable difficulties and obstacles along the way. And on the morning of the 7th, Petit made his triumphant walk.
The film is based on Petit's autobiography, To Reach the Clouds (2002).
So how does a film maker take a well-established piece of history and make it interesting? Zemeckis does a brilliant job from beginning to end. He starts with Petit narrating the story from a unique vantage point, a perch from which the towers can be seen behind him as he speaks. And we then flash back to the beginning of the story, Petit's street entertainer days, the recruitment of his accomplices, both in Paris and in New York.
The planning, the training, the interrelationships of the main characters are beautifully developed. Until finally, the moment of truth. I won't go into detail here except to say the tension is palpable. Even though we knew that Petit made the walk successfully, my wife gripped my hand tightly when Petit stepped foot over the void.
The actual walk is a thing of beauty. The recreation of the towers is brilliant. The tops of the towers were built in a sound stage with the wire strung between them twelve feet off the ground. A green screen below the wire allowed for CGI animation to fill in the rest. It is absolutely convincing and totally stunning. In IMAX 3D (the only way to see this movie in my opinion) you are there.
These scenes are mixed with drama, humour (as the cops try and talk him down) and a sublime serenity as Petit shares his thoughts while on the wire.
He is, of course, arrested, but the judge lets him off if he'll do a free show for the kids at Central Park, to which he readily agrees.
Zemeckis, thankfully, does not show the destruction of the towers. He, and Petit, wants us to see them and remember them as they were. The destruction is not mentioned at all. The closing shot will linger in your memory long after the movie is finished.
This is one of the best movies I have seen in years. A tribute to the human spirit. A tribute to vision, to creativity, to stretching the bounds of imagination and achievement.
Bold prediction: This film will win five Academy Awards - Best Picture, Best Director Robert Zemeckis, Best Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he actually learned to wire walk for the movie, trained by Philippe Petit himself and learned to be fluent in French) , Best Special Effects and Best Adapted Screenplay. Maybe more. It could take awards for editing and music as well.
Spoiler Alert - do not click the following link until after you've seen the movie! History vs. Hollywood - shows how accurate the movie is (very accurate!)