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NYFF 2015: 'The Walk' - Philippe Petit's Achievement Is Now Family Friendly

Before Man on Wire was released, Robert Zemeckis planned to turn the children's book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers into a feature film.


The Walk

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz
Year: 2015
US Release Date: 2015-09-30

A few years back, a summer position required me to chaperone a group of high schoolers between Washington D.C. and New York so that they could see various landmarks. To occupy time during one of the lengthy bus rides, I decided these future young leaders should see the James Marsh's inspiring documentary Man on Wire, about funambulist Philippe Petit's incredible 1974 accomplishment, stringing a tightrope between the Twin Towers and crossing between them repeatedly.

I had some hesitation about screening the documentary in front of teens, as there's a scene near the end where a randy Frenchman is getting frisky with a lady. But that is Petit himself, full of passion, creativity and life. Man on Wire also features interviews with many of the collaborators involved in the artistic "coup" that put their friend onto the wire. And, as documentaries are wont to do, it arrives at the actual outcome of Petit's relationships with them.

What Robert Zemeckis has done with Petit's story in his feature film The Walk, which premiered at the New York Film Festival on 26 September, was to smooth out Petit's edges, making him more palatable for a wider audience. To do that, he has to gloss over some truths (I can't fault him for taking artistic license, of course, but more on that later). Zemeckis isn't able to transform the story into an essential film -- Man on Wire is very hard to surpass -- but he ensures the triumph (Petit completed the walk) remains inspirational for future generations.

This movie's success coincides with Petit's success -- during the latter half of the film, planning and building up to the walk itself. But in the pre-arrival in New York City sections, particularly moreso early on, The Walk feels weak. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance as Petit is sound, he improved his French (including developing a Parisian accent) and learned the art of wire walking from Petit for this role. Opening on the Twin Towers, Petit (Gordon), stands atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, narrating his life. Much of this exposition doesn’t seem necessary and, while Petit’s backstory wasn’t fully explored in the documentary, this glossy version of it, how easily he meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and the years of effort required to learn the trade through Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) pass by quickly without allowing for these supporting characters to be developed.

Other characters are even less developed, and as noted, Petit's narcissistic qualities are glossed over. Petit (Gordon) doesn't think to thank his friends on his own. The man can make people angry, as angry as I felt watching top-hatted Petit (Gordon) unicycle away from his parent's home having been kicked out for clowning around too much.

If there were any person who would have issues with the artistic direction, it would be Petit himself (I interviewed him a few years back -- see "Fit to Be Tied", PopMatters, 24 October 2012). An exacting man, Petit likely relinquished control of his story for its big screen feel-good translation. Even the movie tie-in edition of his book, To Reach the Clouds, is inaccurate, as it shows the wire running from the center of one of the tower’s faces when it had been placed at the corners of each tower. More egregious is the final group scene where Petit and his friends drink wine and celebrate their success. It never happened. But that's the only way Zemeckis could have had big studio backing I'd wager.

One artistic move was much more subtle but is far more successful. After his feat, the real Petit earned a pass to the World Trade Center observation deck. On the unique pass, the expiration date was crossed out, written above was the word “permanent”. In Zemeckis’s film, Petit (Gordon) proudly notes his pass is marked “forever”… a fitting tribute to Petit’s unequivocally remarkable achievement and to the lasting memory of the Twin Towers. While the towers' darkest final moments will never be a footnote, the effect their creation had on Petit's mind should not become an afterthought. His walk was more audacious, more inspiring, more insane and, even though it happened, exceeds imagination.

The Walk turns Petit's story, via the children's book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, into a family friendly affair. But see Man on Wire, if you can.

* * *

After the press screening, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Robert Zemekis, Charlotte Lebon, James Badge Dale and Ben Schwartz answered some questions. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has shared the video so please check it out to hear some jokes from Schwartz, about Gordon-Levitt’s recent visit to the Ground Zero memorial and Zemekis’s efforts to turn Petit’s tale into feature film.

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