Going into a screening of The Walk, I was less concerned with the factual accuracy of the film than the pit in my stomach that comprised equal parts terror and excitement. Terror, because my irrational fear of heights was about to be pushed to its limits in 3D and IMAX, and excitement, because Philippe Petit's traverse of the distance between the two towers of the World Trade Center is as much a heist story as an artistic feat. His story obeys dramatic structure in a way that's almost too good to be true — he falls in love, moves to a big city, and after a series of missteps, finally accomplishes the daring walk he set out for. So how accurate is The Walk , compared to the true events of Petit's story?
In the film's trailer, one of the most harrowing moments occurs when an equipment malfunction looks apt to knock little Joseph Gordon-Levitt off his high-wire perch. He baubles for a moment before regaining his balance, the crowd below standing agape. But Petit told the New Yorker that he does not fake losing his balance for the crowd's benefit, calling such antics "vulgar." The challenges he faces on the high wire were all too real, and the cast and filmmakers took this into account in preparing for their roles. They went to extraordinary lengths — Gordon-Levitt, who plays Petit, in particular — in order to get inside the head space of those characters and bring them faithfully to the screen.
The focus of the film, according to director Robert Zemeckis, was the actual moment of the walk, which was never captured on film when it happened in 1974 and therefore was not included in the documentary Man on Wire. So Zemeckis constructed his narrative building towards a hyper-realistic, yet predominantly green-screened reproduction of the walk, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It was just one of the many ways that The Walk aimed to put its cast members — and, ultimately, the terrified yet excited audience — inside Petit's head and in the very moment of the fated 1974 feat.
The green screen reconstructed the two upper stories of the World Trade Center, and Indiewire reports that the accompanying high-wire was 12 feet off the ground (Gordon-Levitt described it as a "green abyss") — César Donboy's character Jean-François is afraid of heights, and even at 12 feet it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch.
Philippe Petit was intimately involved in this recreation. Gordon-Levitt, the film's star who plays Petit, had never stepped onto a high wire before, but he trained with Petit himself, according to THR. Petit also emphasized the importance of artistry on the wire, according to Entertainment Weekly. "I cannot walk the wire without that passion and the love for the wire," he said. He told Gordon-Levitt that he would be able to walk on a tightrope in eight days of intensive training, and though the actor initially expressed his doubts, he found that he was a competent high-wire walker by the end of that period.
"It's actually very fun, if painful," Gordon-Levitt told THR. He continued to hone his skills over the course of shooting.
He then took his newfound skills to an ever-more-realistic stage, walking the length from one World Trade Center tower to the other, now marked by the two memorial pools at the site. His skills allowed him to work with a stunt double, according to THR, and film some of the pivotal high wire moments himself. "There are some similarities between wire-walking and acting," Gordon-Levitt told The Guardian. "It’s all a mental game. When you’re acting, there’s this chaos going on around you and you have to compartmentalize and not think about it."
Philippe Petit is, as one might assume from his name, a born-and-bred Frenchman. The cast of The Walk is replete with French compatriots, including Charlotte Le Bon (who is actually French Canadian), Clément Sibony, and César Domboy supporting Gordon-Levitt's performance as Petit. It's an appropriate role for Gordon-Levitt, who is an avowed Francophile (his mother, according to a New York Times profile, majored in French in college) with a predilection for French New Wave cinema. He already spoke French before The Walk began production, and he honed his accent with the assistance of his "very honest" co-stars, according to THR. "I don’t know if I fooled French people, but I fooled Americans," he said.
"It's like a fairy tale," actor Ben Schwartz told the New York Times. "I feel like it's a modern-day fairy tale." He gets at the fundamental aesthetic of the film — this unthinkable event did really happen, and the actors and filmmakers went to great lengths to recreate, to pluck a man off the street and place him on a high wire hundreds of feet over the city below. Through consultation with the high wire artist himself and the extraordinary efforts of the cast and crew in recreating the circumstances of the walk, the last movement of the film — the walk itself — has been critically hailed as a worthy successor to the palm-sweating terror-excitement of Gravity .
Images: Tristar Pictures (4)