For a movie where you know how it’s going to end before you begin, they sure manage to create a lot of suspense.
“The Walk” is about a French performance artist deciding that he wanted to come over to the United States and put his high-wire between the two tallest buildings in the world at the time: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And then walk across, with no net below him. Of course that was illegal, as well as dangerous. But the former street performer/mime/juggler was kind of used to operating under the radar: he didn’t like signing up for permits in France, either. And he learned his craft from a circus act. So really, it was just a stunt. The question is, did it have symbolic significance beyond that?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit, who was a born loner, but even he realized he needed help for this one. He called his little posse his “accomplices.” Somebody had to help him carry the equipment, and somehow get it past the guards, and spend all night rigging it up so that in the morning, the people of New York City could wake up to their own private high-wire act. 90 stories up. There was his sometime girlfriend, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and a couple of friends, and a couple of their friends, and that was about it. His high-wire mentor, “Papa Rudy” (Ben Kingsley), stayed behind in France (it wasn’t a French accent he was trying to emulate, but exactly what accent was that?). Gordon-Levitt, for his part, imitates the French, and the accent, fairly well, and is even fairly convincing as the somewhat superstitious performer. He didn’t want anyone around him talking about death. (I’m about life.) He had to wear his turtle neck costume when he performed, because this was when he transformed himself into his performance character. He had to check the rigging himself, on the roofs of both Twin Towers. And of course, he had to have absolute control over when and how it was set up, including the skirt-around-the-gendarmes part. Yes, he was a bit insufferable in his one-dimensionality, and a lot egocentric, but who else would have even attempted such a thing?
So, is there symbolism here beyond the mere act itself? Perhaps. There is the aspect of the random quest, the Quixotic tilting at windmills that defines a personality. There is the aspect of focusing tremendous personal energy toward a single goal, like the running of a marathon, or the hiking of The Pacific Crest Trail, that people remember all their lives. Sure, the struggle was somewhat self-induced, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t pride in accomplishing it. And then, of course, there is the backdrop of the Twin Towers, with all their emotional content for every American. No, 9/11 is not mentioned. After all, that was in 2001, and “The Walk” was in 1974. And yet, it’s impossible for us to be engaged in 3-D with the Twin Towers and not think of 2001 as an emotional backdrop.
So, is it cheap sentimentalism for Annie to say to Philippe after his triumphal return that he has somehow given a soul to the Towers themselves? Maybe. But it’s a most memorable line, and a fitting epitaph to a most memorable walk.