A friend and I ventured to the Minnesota Zoo’s IMAX theater recently to see Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, a telling of the famous high wire walk performed by Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers on August 7th, 1974. The illegal high wire act took six years of planning and made Petit a celebrity, especially in New York City. Director Zemeckis and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt have now created a perfectly competent telling of this tale, but sadly their work misses the real significance of Petit’s accomplishment.
While the digitally re-created World Trade Center looks astonishingly real and the 3D photography does a great job of creating a sense of space–and even put some butterflies into my stomach–, The Walk is bogged down by some sloppy narrative devices (there’s way too much voice-over narration and far too many flashbacks) and one suspects an inability to truly comprehend Petit’s historical feat. At the time of Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers, they were the tallest buildings in America and intended to be a symbol of our nation’s enterprise. However, the newly constructed structures were also roundly criticized as being ugly and oppressive to New York’s sideline.
Petit’s 45 minute show on the high wire (what he dubbed “le coup”) gave New Yorkers and others a new appreciation of the Twin Towers. While it is unpopular to say so in light of the 9/11 attacks, the World Trade Center was actually a rather bland and cold architectural triumph. Certainly the ability to create two buildings that both stood over 1300 feet tall is a marvel of engineering, but the buildings lacked the artistry and sense of purpose one finds in St. Peter’s Basilica or the Eiffel Tower. Citizens of the early 1970s understood correctly that the ability to produce bigger things did not thereby mean something better had emerged; the Twin Towers were in many ways hollow accomplishments that unintentionally showed the industrial world’s inability to satisfy basic human needs.
By walking across the Towers, however, Petit transcended them and showed that humanity is capable of something greater than just a manipulation of material elements. As a result, the Towers were no longer seen to be a symbol of industry, but rather a symbol of ingenuity. Mankind is not simply a physical being, but also possesses a soul and has a view to the world beyond our sense perception. Robert Zemeckis’ filmed account of Petit’s accomplishment is unable to reveal this facet of the story, because it is too enamored with the special effects and other gimmicks.
Thankfully, the enthralling 2008 film Man on Wire, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, does capture this aspect of Petit’s accomplishment. Designed as a heist film, Man on Wire focuses its interest on the humanity of Philippe Petit and his crew’s walk. Whereas Man on Wire uses interviews and re-enactments to demonstrate the heart of Petit’s high wire escapade, The Walk simply pulls all the right levers to create a visceral experience that never successfully balances human emotion with technical accomplishment.