There are hundreds of ways to tell a story.
This seems obvious, but it becomes more apparent than ever while watching “The Walk,” “Castaway” director Robert Zemeckis’s fantastical re-creation of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. The film’s tone is almost mythic, and it focuses on Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Inception”) instead of the act itself. Because “The Walk” was preceded by a 2008 documentary (“Man on Wire”) covering the same events, Zemeckis makes the decision to stray on the side of fairytale, pulling the narrative structure away from a more realistic telling.
The plot is simple, but it holds its excitement in the details of Philipe’s goals, which must be configured to make the final, incredible wire-walk possible. Since he was a boy, Petit dreamed of being a successful wire-walker — but with a catch. Instead of being perceived as a circus performer, he hopes his walks will be received as art — a performance to showcase the impossible as possible — to merge reality with dreams. As he reflects on the nature of art, he travels around France performing on the streets until he sees an advertisement for the newly-constructed Twin Towers one day. He becomes determined to organize a coup and walk between the towers, amassing a group of artists and other assistants to break into the buildings. Working for months to devise a plan and engineer the wire between the buildings, Petit carries the audience with him from the initial idea to his iconic walk before the entire world.
Petit stands as a dynamic, larger-than-life character whose desire to showcase the art of wire-walking drives the entire film forward. He performs his daring and beautiful stunts far above the cities, first walking between the towers of Notre Dame and eventually between the Twin Towers — and it seems the film’s stunning visual effects would pull attention from the character and onto the spectacle of the feats themselves. However, the focus remains on Philipe’s emotions: his pride in these moments and the determination to continue walking.
The film’s strength comes from its ability to characterize Petit in relation to the surrounding city spaces. He is constantly shown holding a string between any two standing objects, figuring where he can next hang his wire and perform. By integrating Petit into the cities that surround him, Zemeckis reflects his imaginative character in the fantasy of the countryside, the creative inspiration of living in a vibrant city like Paris and the grit and determination from the streets of NYC. Instead of outlining these qualities through an overabundance of action and dialogue, the film keeps Petit’s character action-driven, answering the “why” behind many of his absurd stunts through the places he assimilates to.
“The carrots are cooked,” as the French characters throughout the film say. The act has already been done, and it may seem that returning to an already-dramatized story is a futile act. However, through the imaginative narrative style, focus on character and dreamlike special effects, “The Walk” is able to successfully re-examine an already famous story.