Synopsis: A Frenchman high wire walks between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.
I have a sensible fear of heights. For example, while I would be a window washer for the inside of a high-rise building, there is no way that I would be a window washer for the outside of those same windows. Sensible, right? What is highly insensible is that anyone would walk on a wire between tall buildings. But in 1974 Frenchman–and professional crazy man– Phillipe Petite walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He traversed 138 feet of wire while suspended 1,350 feet above the ground. I’m a little dizzy just writing that…
I decided to brave my fear of outrageous heights — or at least movies about them– and see Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (JGL) plays the daredevil. His French accent is admirable and he is quite agile. He ably demonstrates Monsieur Petite’s supreme talent, pride and arrogance. But somehow the make up people have strange-ified his face, putting spooky blue contacts on his eyeballs and seemingly stretching plastic wrap across sections of his face until he looks like Tom Hanks in The Polar Express.
The film begins in France where JGL is expressing his eccentricity in a way that his homeland appreciates: through the circus arts. On the streets of Paris, he juggles and unicycles for francs. But he wants to do something more daring and after seeing an artist’s rendering of the Twin Tower design, he becomes obsessed with wire walking between the buildings. JGL practices and practices his high wire walks and, with the help of “accomplices,” plans accessing the under-construction buildings for the illegal walk. His assistants include a sometime girlfriend and an assortment of unconventional French and American guys.
The first real challenge to my fear of heights occurs at dawn on the day of the stunt or “le coup.” JGL and an accomplice must elude security by secreting themselves high up in an elevator shaft in one of the towers. Mon Dieu! The camera work is vertigo-inducing but I stayed calm. The set-up sequences play like a caper, alternating between visual comedy and tension. History tells us that JGL–uh, Pierre– will get up on the wire but the film puts us on the edge of our seats.
At approximately seven a.m., August 7, 1974 in NYC, the walk began. Le crazy man has mad skills and dazzles the gathered crowd for nearly forty-five minutes as he walked between the towers. (Petite later said that he could hear the spectators’ shouts and cheers.) Zemeckis really lets JGL show off and makes us dizzy with the visuals. The walk was a challenge for me to watch and I had to remind myself that I was safe in a theater but then I was thrown off-balance when he actually lay down on the wire. Ha ha ha! Yes, what a relaxing place to rest. I had to hold fast to my arm rest to get through that scene.
Finally JGL relinquishes his place amongst the clouds; safely, thank goodness. I left the movie with my sensible fear of heights intact. I also found myself nostalgic for a NYC I never knew– innocent of global terrorism and the scars it would leave. And so, mes amis, walk along with the crazy, awesomely athletic Frenchman for a walk over a bygone New York.
Cut to the Chase: Come for the walk. Stay for the JGL.
Comedy Highlight: JGL unicycling at high speeds around the Paris streets like it’s no big deal.