The 53rd installment of the New York Film Festival kicked off last week with the premiere of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, a vertiginous retelling of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. It’s a broad crowd-pleaser whose very inclusion in the festival’s lineup — let alone as opening film — feels a little odd. However, once you see it, you realise why the programmers made the decision. Zemeckis’ film is a shamelessly saccharine and yet still moving tribute to the iconic buildings and the city that held them for 27 years. Zemeckis posits that those two ugly buildings, hated by New Yorkers when they first went up, were given a human and mythic quality once an enterprising individual (an immigrant no less!) decided to break all the laws of society and reason, string a wire between them and walk across the void. For all the sentimental imagery thrown at us about the World Trade Center towers over the last decade, the elegy presented by this film actually manages to land with all intended emotional impact.
It helps to have a puckish, mercurial presence like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s anchoring the project. He’s an incredibly energetic actor whose physicality is imbued with the sort of mischievous irreverence essential to playing an iconoclast like Petit. It’s also well-suited to musicals and, in fact, The Walk is certainly reminiscent of one, redolent with whimsy and built around what is essentially one breathtaking dance performance. And what a performance it is. Zemeckis has been fiddling with the mechanics of filmmaking for years and this film is one of those rare examples of a story that is enhanced by 3D/IMAX formats instead of being hindered by them because studio executives wanted to make an extra buck. People were throwing up in the bathrooms after the press screening and I can see why: the 3D rendition of Petit’s high-wire act is the closest one could possibly come to said experience without actually accomplishing it. Between the 3D effects and Dariusz Wolski’s fluid camerawork, the viewers feel suspended in midair too, the wind rushing through our hair and a (very convincing) digitally painted 1970s Manhattan stretching out beneath us. This isn’t the sort of intellectual experience that many of the festival’s other selections will undoubtedly present; it’s cinema as spectacle, as the sort of discombobulating yet exhilarating sensory assault experienced by the people who saw Train Pulling Into a Station back in 1895. Zemeckis, forever the detail-oriented filmmaker, renders the entire process with precise care: Petit and his crew’s illicit entry into the towers, the complicated setup of the cable network he has to traverse and then, bathed in early morning light, the walk itself.
It helps to have a puckish, mercurial presence like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s anchoring the project. He’s an incredibly energetic actor whose physicality is imbued with the sort of mischievous irreverence essential to playing an iconoclast like Petit.
The film has its faults. The supporting characters are thin, a particular shame when you have Ben Kingsley playing the ornery Czech tightrope walker who trains Petit, French actress Charlotte Le Bon as Petit’s girlfriend/accomplice and the perpetually scene-stealing James Badge Dale as his American inside man. The thing is though, the supporting character who really counts is the city Zemeckis and his cast are paying tribute to. Now there’s a character that’s fleshed out admirably, through the policeman who congratulates Petit on his feat while putting handcuffs on him, through the construction worker who inadvertently shores up Petit’s confidence when it’s at its lowest ebb, in the grimy streets and restaurants (and, yes, the not-really-there pixels) that Zemeckis puts up on the screen with such reverence. The Walk is about Philippe Petit and his magnificent accomplishment, certainly. But it’s also about the not-always-reasonable ambitions and fierce pride that are so integral to the function and character (both fictional and real-life) of New York City. We’ve all had enough of the tiresome, nationalistic tributes to the Twin Towers, wrapped in soft-focus American flags and militaristic sound and fury. The Walk represents the city entirely removed from the various agendas that have hijacked its tragedy to their own distasteful ends. Here, an immigrant’s decidedly unrealistic (perhaps even insane) ambitions form a microcosmic portrait of a heterogeneous community, and in his final words about the sense of loss he feels for the buildings that played such a role in the defining moment of his life, he speaks for that community. All in all, I admire a high-culture event like the New York Film Festival deciding to open the proceedings with a movie like this. People tend, unfortunately, to equate film festivals with inaccessibility, and by showing a film that is so obviously geared towards the community that hosts this particular festival, the programmers have done themselves and us a favour. Plenty of time for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Yorgos Lanthimos later and I, for one, am looking forward to all of it.