A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

Many years ago in Rome I went with a group of other tourists to the top of the dome of St. Peter's where, stepping out onto the narrow observation platform, I experienced a moment of real terror. Stretching out below me, beyond a barrier that seemed to be only knee-high but was probably at least waist-high, were the ridges of the dome, extending downward like railway tracks into the abyss. They were dotted with metal disks that, the guide told us, mountaineers would place candles on to illuminate the dome at Christmastime. As I shrunk back as far from the guard rail as possible, I realized something about my fear of heights: I'm not afraid of falling so much as jumping. I realized that a momentary psychotic break could easily cause me to hurdle the barrier and plunge to my death. Maybe it was the perspective of the receding ridges that awoke this in me, but I had never experienced anything like it before, and even at the rim of the Grand Canyon I have never experienced it quite the same again. I have it under control. But I'm glad I didn't see The Walk in 3D in theaters, where I've heard that audience members fainted or fled as Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) took his walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Even watching it in 2D on a TV screen brought back that experience on the dome. And not so much during the walk on the wire as during the preparations, when Petit clambers around on the verge of the building to set up his equipment: There's something about being in the proximity of the crisis moment that knots me up. During the walk itself, the self-possession of Gordon-Levitt's Petit is somehow oddly calming. All of this is to say that The Walk is an oddly unique film in its success at portraying the narrowness of the line between heroism and foolishness. For Petít's walk was singularly foolish, and Gordon-Levitt does a wonderful job of presenting him as an engaging personality with an eccentric obsession that most of us can only marvel at and reluctantly admire. Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay with Christopher Browne, deserves credit for blending characterization with state-of-the-art film technology that for once isn't used to fling things at the audience but to draw them into a precarious state. It felt like a return to the engaging Zemeckis of the Back to the Future films (1985, 1989, 1990) after the overblown Forrest Gump (1994), Contact (1997), and Cast Away (2000). Remarkably, the film gets away without sentimentalizing the calamitous fate of the twin towers and their inhabitants, although seeing them re-created with cinematic technology does create a subtext for Petit's performance. Only at the very end, when the image of the towers fades into a sunlit "11," do we get a subtle evocation of that date in September 2001.