The Walk

Actually, The Walk ***** is this year’s Gravity. Certainly, our acrobatic tightrope walker Philippe Petit (played with pixie-ish charm by Joseph Gordon Levitt) defies the elemental force of earth’s nature to teeter between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in Robert Zemeckis’ jolly, breathtaking 3D dramatisation of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.

Strangely, that terrific film, directed by James Marsh and produced by Simon Chinn, doesn’t get a mention at all. The source credit goes to Petit’s own book, leading to the film’s narration device of the puckish Petit recounting the whole story from atop the Statue of Liberty.

I didn’t mind this conceit at all. JGL does very well with the French accent, when speaking both in English and in French and the voice-over story-telling is most satisfactory in letting us into the mind of this artistically brave yet naive and deluded individual.

There maybe a touch too much mime, unicycle and French circusing for some tastes here, but Zemeckis (officially the world’s most perpetually under-rated genius director) makes the Paris sections feel very Amelie-like, idyllic even, with cute little cliches such as Petit wooing the pretty Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, exuding a Delpy-ish beauty) by constructing a model of his wire walk over dinner using two wine bottles as the Twin Towers.

Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away to namecheck just a few) has a knack for combining wit and hokeyness (e.g. Ben Kingsley as a veteran circus man named Papa Rudi) with special effects that become part of the fabric of the story. And, with this in mind, I urge you to see The Walk in 3D.

The movie probes ideas of performance and art as well as the philosophy of dreams. “Without an audience, there’s no show,” says Papa Rudi. And who’s going to see a man walking a wire 500 ft in the New York skies? Hence the framing narration device, which romanticises all the build up to what in his own head Philippe sees as the “greatest artistic coup of the century”.

Zemeckis changes tone in the New York section, creating a breezy heist movie that pastiches those great NY movies of the 70s, such as The Taking of Pelham 123. It’s exciting enough, but when we get up to the top of the towers, the film – and the effects – really take flight.

My stomach performed a round turn two and half pike as JGL and his “accomplices” just stood on the roofs of the North and South towers. The views all around are immaculately recreated – I went up the towers once, back in February 1993 and I remember the dizziness as well as the vista – while the sheer elegance of the feat comes to the fore.

But as the feet dance across the void, I felt real vertigo and dizziness, as if my tummy had fallen into my pants. It was actually like being on a roller coaster, or at the very least, that ‘weeeee”  when your Dad used to drive fast over little country bridges in the car.

As he crosses, JGL’s face is in a state of bliss, a state of grace. “I experienced an intense joy, a profound satisfaction,” he recalls. He tiptoes through the clouds, while traffic goes about its daily business in the morning rush hour below. There’s something of Breugel’s painting Landscape with The Fall of Icarus that came to my mind, a spectacular, God-provoking feat, accomplished while no-one really notices, or as Auden later put it, while “the dogs go on with their doggy life.”

However, there is a coda, when police do arrive and helicopters and Petit just keeps on his tightrope long enough to ensure his “coup” gets the attention it merits.

Zemeckis’ film cements the event as popular history, as truth and as legend, part of New York’s ever-evolving city lore, as much as those now-disappeared towers still haunt the landscape and the sky space. “You gave them a soul,” breathes Annie.

I don’t know. Petit is all about giving himself his dues. It’s taken him this long to get affirmation, to see his act brought to life and acknowledged as part of New York history. I’ve met him and he is a curious, wide-eyed, street-performer of a fellow, the man who balanced his Oscar on his chin. He’s a poet of his own universe, always after a ta-dah finish, a “compliment” to the audience, even if there isn’t one to witness his self-perceived brilliance.

Perhaps Zemeckis sees something of himself in Petit, his cinematic achievements often going under appreciated for their quiet subversion, their visual radicalism. Both are restless storytellers with eyes on grand gesture and high spectacle – but they both should now be acknowledged as true masters of their art.