Here is Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and he is here to tell us of an incredible feat he performed with his incredible feet. Back in the nineteen-seventies, he had been a street performer in Paris, you know the sort of thing, juggling, mime, unicycling, but he could also walk a tightrope which was not often called for on those city streets. One day after showing off a little too much he cracked his tooth on a gobstopper and hastily took himself off to the dentist to get it fixed, but as he was in the waiting room and flicking through one of the magazines provided, he was thunderstruck to see a full-page photograph of the then-in construction World Trade Center, and had a brainwave...
If there's one thing the World Trade Center is famous for, it is not that a Frenchman once walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers back around the time it was almost completed, it was a more recent and devastating event that seemed to signal the beginning of a very confusing and frightening twenty-first century. But though that was on everyone's mind who watched this, and had to be on the minds of the filmmakers, it did not get a mention in the entire two hours it took this true story to unfold under the fictionalised version of director Robert Zemeckis, drawing from the actual Petit's autobiography and going as far as hiring the daredevil as a consultant and trainer for his star.
Naturally (or unnaturally) this was very much a special effects movie of the sort that Zemeckis had made his stock in trade ever since the eighties, since the Center was no longer around, and this rendered the nostalgia factor all the more resonant when the bright new future of the towers in a very depressed time for New York City represented what could be achieved by a bunch of people getting together and making something important. Arguably that was what Petit and his team did as well, assembled in a manner the film deliberately made allusions to: those sixties caper movies that had followed in the wake of the French benchmark for everything that followed after, Rififi.
That film had electrified fifties audiences with its lengthy heist sequence played out in real time, and if they had never seen anything like that before they were assuredly going to see something like it again. In fact, they still do, as many a caper flick still peppers the release schedules of movies around the world to this day - original inspiration The Asphalt Jungle was not so much the influence, as audiences preferred to see some success in the endeavours of the characters they would, in the best of them, be invested in. As in all of those instances, with The Walk we were privy to the intense training and preparation, the awareness of what could go wrong, and the eventual setpiece of all the threads of the plan coming together in one tense sequence which was what we had been patiently awaiting for the previous hour or so.
Despite not being what springs to mind when the Center is brought up, the documentary of a few years before this, Man on Wire, had been well-enough known to make the success of Petit's stunt a given: there was no way Zemeckis was going to stage his hero taking a tumble for umpteen floors, even in a nightmare sequence (although a supporting character was not so lucky). While there was a high concept here (literally), The Walk was not one of the major movies of its year, no matter its must-see status in 3D in cinemas, or maybe because of that as the fear of heights may have kept a portion of the potential audience away. Seeing it in 2D was not quite the same, yet we are still aware of how perilous this trip between buildings on a wire was, and that hit home when the rest of it came across as a shade too hokey and pleased with itself, Alan Silvestri's music unsure whether to go for cute or sweeping and inspirational. Levitt, though a Francophile, sounded a bit snooty French waiter, and there was a feeling of hanging about waiting for Petit to get on with it, but the symbolism of what one man did that could never be repeated did leave an impression.
But come the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, he grew more earnest and consequently less entertaining, although just as successful: Contact, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away and the motion capture animated efforts The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Flight, The Walk and Allied were also big productions, but failed to have the same cultural impact.
With frequent writing collaborator Bob Gale, Zemeckis also scripted 1941 and Trespass. Horror TV series Tales from the Crypt was produced by him, too.