Robert Zemeckis' The Walk (2015): A story of Performance Art in the air

The tale of a man who wants to walk the immense void b/w the WTC towers

By Anirban Lahiri

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

The Walk (2015) - By Robert Zemeckis
Our Rating: 8.0
IMDb Ratings: 7.9
Genre: Adventure  | Biography  |  Drama
CastJoseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley
Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 123 min
Color: Color

Summary: In 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit recruits a team of people to help him realize his dream: to walk the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.

The latest offering from Robert Zemeckis and Sony Pictures, The Walk, is a marvellous tale of the twin towers, and of a man who dreams of crossing the air between them, on a tight wire, without a support except for his balancing rod. It is an inspiring journey of love, ballet in the sky, and the meaning of art.

Why do people create pieces of art? Why do mountaineers take up severe, sensational challenges? Why do we watch formula-one races? Sometimes these are the things we live for. Surely, none of us lives just to earn his/her daily bread, have a partner for sex and to produce the next generation? Biologically, this is what we are made for. But, even the crassest of us would deny that this is all about life.

Slowly, more neuroscientists and philosophers of art are coming to the consensus that art probes the limits of reality, and hence any form of art helps the species to survive. Ask the neurosurgeon V Ramachandran. His answer would be, art means heightened reality. Even the surrealists suggested that.

Phillip Petit on the roof of one of the WTC buildings
Some kinds of sports are performance art. So are some types of ballet and locational space-plays. Marina Abramovic’s performances drew a lot of attention in the 70s and 80s. So were Uday Shankar’s dance performances, and sometimes Ravi Shankar’s Sitar recital, in the last century. The artist becomes the art, in all these. The Mongolian Buryat shaman’s chant, or the African ‘Return of the dead’, which Chinua Achebe described vividly in his novel, Things Fall Apart, are similar spiritual performances, with the same logic. 

The Walk presents a similar exploration. Philippe Petit, the French Wire-walker, wants to kiss the sky. He wants to walk from the roof of one of the World Trade Center buildings to another, balancing his feet on a tight rope. The distance is 110 ft. The height is 1776 ft from the ground. It is an illegal performance. It must be done surreptitiously.

Murphy’s law states that if anything can go wrong, it will, all at once. In Philippe Petit’s case, everything has chances of going wrong. The challenge is his own, born out of his love of sky-ballet. He has no sponsor, no financial, or even emotional, back up except for his girl friend Annie Allix. Slowly, he gets five friends to support him – the five accomplices to the act - out of whom one backs away on the spot.

Phillip Petit resting on the wire hanging between the WTC twin towers
The Walk, to be watched in IMAX tall format, is all the more overwhelming because of these tantalizations. The moment you see yourself in Philippe Petit, you start living the moments of confidence and doubt, step by step, balancing in the air, between the twin towers.

It is covertly spiritual. Zemeckis, the Director, craftily planted moments, in the tale, that spurt out the fact that all art forms had their origin, and the destination, in religion. Hence, the overarching moments, in the narrative, are when Philippe Petit finds the wire and twin towers to be his greatest supports, and when he lies down on the wire looking at clouds and a seagull appears from nowhere. The Walk becomes the apex of fulfilment for him, at those moments. It becomes an act of desire, joy, orgasm. It transforms the mundane act of walk, as if, to a dinner with the Olympian gods. It ceases to be a challenge anymore.

Exactly, at those moments, the performance becomes the highest form of art. Art not performed for any man. Art as a conversation with the God.

The walk must be caught in an IMAX theatre, if possible. One should watch the film at least in 3D. It would be an act of sacrilege to watch this on home screen, or laptop, in pirated version.

A Still from Robert Zemeckis' The Walk
Zemeckis, the Director of the film, has gifted us a range of spectacles in different genres, starting from Back to the Future (1985), through Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000), to The Walk (2015). When we teach cinema in the class, we talk about basic types of conflicts – Man vs Man, Man vs Society, Man vs Nature, Man vs Himself, Man vs Machine etc. Each type presents a new group of contrasts. The Director’s job is to translate those contrasts in the story (and screenplay) to audio-visual contrasts. It seems Zemeckis has mastered that technique long ago.

The Walk uses the tall IMAX technology more brilliantly than any other film made so far. The narration demands that format. The sound keeps you alert in the spectator’s seat, in the dark theatre. After all, it is you, the spectator, who is getting ready to take a walk along the tight rope, at a height from where the ground looks like the tiny puppetry show. After all, it is you who is invited to the dinner with the God!

Highly recommended for people who love spectacles, inspiration and confidence.

Although this is not a biopic, it is based on the real Philippe Petit’s, the Wire-Walker’s story through the character’s own post-event, reflective narration.

Rating: 8/10 (in the spectacle category)

About Author - 

Anirban is a Cinematographer and film teacher. After a marathon teaching of filmmaking for five years in Digital Academy, Mumbai, he is busy writing his own film now. He was with DearCinema during its first phase. Steeped in cultural theory, observation and history, he sees all his work as part of a continuum – critique. Anirban consciously plays the role of a critic while shooting films, teaching, writing stories, and of course while critiquing. His favourite filmmakers are Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyaji Ray, Luis Buñuel, Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami and Nagisa Oshima, to name a few.

Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  


The Walk (2015) Trailer (YouTube)

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