Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

03 November 2015

Walking on Air

I thought Robert Zemeckis's movie The Walk – which is based on a story told in James Marsh's Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire – was a trifling bit of fluff.

I had heard tell that The Walk was an exciting movie, that it took some time getting started, but that once Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who put a wire between two corners of the Twin Towers, got onto his wire and started walking across, the movie was really going to get going.

I had also heard that people were getting sick in this movie, getting vertigo or becoming disturbed somehow by the dizzying heights portrayed in the film. (This obviously appealed to me.)

But... The Walk is, more than anything else, a kind of whimsical fairy tale. The screenplay is designed like a children's story, and it is actually narrated by the actor playing Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the balcony at the top of the Statue of Liberty's torch. He tells us the story from there, while pulling rabbits out of hats and making coins appear from behind the ears of ingenuous children.

One might say that there is more to this film than whimsy, but The Walk insists on a kind of triviality, one that believes in the magic power of mimes. Throughout the film Petit talks a great deal about Art with a capital A, and he believes that his walk is a grand, superb artistic gesture. Frankly, I am inclined to agree with him. But Zemeckis's film is not interested in Petit as an artist, despite the number of times the word art is repeated in the screenplay. For Zemeckis, the protagonist of The Walk is a kind of magical grown up who can show us all what it is like to be a child again. Petit is reduced from what he thinks he is (an artist) to a kind of street magician, a latter-day Peter Pan who refuses to grow up and from whom we all can learn how not to be old. I don't know about you, but I think that kind of thing is silly.

The Walk is also a miniature love letter to the World Trade Center towers at the center of the film. This is understandable, and this aspect of the film is The Walk at its best. Near the film's end a character says something like "People have hated these towers since construction began on them, but now that you did what you did, people say they love the towers – they say that the towers mean something to them now". The actor who says this line, Steve Valentine, renders it beautifully, and embedded in his delivery is what happened to the towers in September of 2001, and what Petit did as an artist to change how people saw the towers. (The Eiffel Tower had its haters when it was first erected in 1889, as well.)

In short, the likability of the film's star and the sensational quality of the narrative the film wishes to tell are both undermined almost irrevocably by The Walk's writer and director. There was a cool film hidden in here somewhere, but maybe the cool film to which I refer is actually just Man on Wire.