Music is subversive. – John Adams
There is a connection between the quote above and Bob Zemeckis’s strangely autobiographical The Walk. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
The biggest question about The Walk is: why didn’t they just hire a French actor? It’s a strange choice to have an American actor – and a very self-conscious one, too, for that matter – put on a horribly stilted accent and pretend to be French.
That aside, if you can get past Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s unconvincing act, The Walk is a manifesto for artists disguised as a biographical movie about French wire-walker Philippe Petit. As we already know, Petit famously – or infamously– performed an illegal high-wire walk across the New York World Trade Centre’s two towers in 1974.
I haven’t seen the acclaimed documentary Man on a Wire, but in Zemeckis’s film, Petit’s personal life isn’t quite the stuff of Hollywood big spectacle. In fact, the first-half of the movie detailing how he became obsessed with wire-walking and his apprenticeship under a Czech circus veteran weighs down the film unnecessarily. What we’ve come to be familiar with about Zemeckis is that he is a master of spectacle, very much like a ringmaster, and we go to his movies expecting to see just that – to be wowed by his whirlwind storytelling zest and to see the impossible happen on the big screen. When you’re forced to endure an hour or more of a not-so-interesting life, it tends to drag on while you’re waiting for the much talked about highwire act, especially in very effective 3D.
The film could have been streamlined into a suspenseful thriller about the planning and execution of the stunt, in the vein of a heist movie, because what Petit and his gang pulled off was very much a crime caper (in the movie, one of the characters initially thought Petit and his men were going to rob a bank or something). But it’s easy to see why Zemeckis took the route that he did – he’s a sentimental fool at heart, and making this a fable-like biography about Petit gives the film a chance to have a charming and poignant ending.
Upon closer inspection, The Walk is really many things all at once. For one, it is about an artist and his struggle to create art. Petit is portrayed as the consummate artist who refuses to water down his act. When the old Czech suggests that he walk across the towers with a safety line attached, Petit goes ballistic, screaming: “If I did that, the whole thing would be meaningless!”
It is about the artist surmounting impossible odds to stay true to his goal. It has to be that exact date in August for the “coup” to be carried out, insists Petit, even when everything starts to go wrong. It is about the artist’s fears and anxieties, of going into the unknown and exposing himself (literally in one scene!).
In that way, The Walk is a somewhat unintentional autobiography. Zemeckis is a filmmaker who has always been about doing the impossible – getting a kid from 1985 to go back and forwards in time, putting a modern actor in old news footage interacting with famous dead people, realising a world where humans and cartoon characters share the same breathing space, creating animated characters to be as human-like as possible. And it’s easy to draw parallels between Petit’s soulful pursuit of the seemingly unattainable with Zemeckis’s. Every effort to create art/film is a highwire balancing act, a risky endeavour that requires one to put one’s well-being in harm’s way. Unlike Fellini consciously putting his personal life on screen in 8 1/2, Zemeckis probably just felt a kinship with Petit and a great affinity with the story of his “coup” because he unconsciously picked up on the parallels.
But in a larger context, Petit is all of us. Who among us has never faced uncertainty; never taken a plunge headlong into an unwritten future, gripped by anxiety and doubt; never been so convinced of something that needs doing but at the same time, fearful of it? In him we see ourselves, and in his triumph we find reassurance.
Yet The Walk is also another thing. It’s a manifesto on what makes great art, which is to go against the grain, to be unpopular (at first), to challenge the powers that be. When Petit tries to recruit an accomplice, he is told his idea is so subversive that only an anti-social anarchist would think of doing such a thing.
Simply, to create something great, you have to break the rules.
And this is where The Walk becomes strangely at odds with Zemeckis, who is a studio man, a filmmaker of the establishment, who makes films that are commercially pleasing and hardly ever against anything. The only way we can say Zemeckis has ever been subversive is perhaps to say that he managed to pull the spectacle over our eyes so that we fail to see the inherent racism and incest played for laughs in Back to the Future, or the idea that stupidity is a redeeming value in Forrest Gump (the latter as pointed out by Jonathan Rosenbaum).
And once again, Zemeckis displays his real strength as an artist by the second-half of the film. The walk itself is a grand spectacle as expected, a vertigo-inducing masterwork of creative camerawork, best experienced in 3D. The illusion is so near-perfect that you never once pause to wonder just how the heck they recreated the Twin Towers so realistically. And JGL is also best when he’s not talking and just walking on the wire, his most convincing performance in the film.
It’s also by this time that the film becomes yet another thing – a loving tribute to the magnificent WTC Twin Towers that were once the tallest buildings in the world, a tribute lent even more emotional weight by the very last line of the film.
Too bad the film just takes too damn long to get to the good parts.
NOTE: As you can see, I used only photos of the actual 1974 wire-walk, because I really can’t stand JGL.