How Phillipe Petit's Twin Towers 'Walk' Helped New York Adopt A New City Symbol

Revisionist histories in the wake of the 9/11 disaster might hold that the Twin Towers were beautiful, graceful, elegant, but to go back and revise the original distaste would do a disservice to the process of acceptance through which New Yorkers ultimately adopted the World Trade Center as an inevitable symbol of the city. This process is on full display in The Walk , Robert Zemeckis's masterpiece of three-dimensional technology that charts French high wire artist Philippe Petit's journey across the Atlantic to New York and finally to a fated highwire traverse between the two towers, still under construction in 1974. That walk, as the film tells it, certainly contributed to the reckoning between the city's inhabitants and its newly minted symbol — and it may even have been responsible for that acceptance.

When Austin Tobin, Executive Director of the New York Port Authority, discussed the World Trade Center project back in the ’70s, he would frequently quote the architect of another iconic New York construction project, Daniel Burnham of the Flatiron Building: "Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the blood." Fittingly, the World Trade Center was as reviled as its landmark predecessor. There were substantial business interests to navigate and legal issues to settle, existing tenants to evict under eminent domain, and the final architectural designs by Minoru Yamasaki were unveiled to be behemoths that towered over the rest of the Manhattan skyline. (At the time, they overtook the Empire State Building as the tallest by far in New York, and contested among the tallest in the world by certain criteria.)

Responses to the planned towers ranged from ambivalence to toxic dislike. In 2011, New York Magazine recalled them as "at once monstrous and fussy, graceless interlopers that thrust themselves on the city’s fabric." Even guidebooks, often known for their optimistic spin, had to acknowledge the physical and metaphorical girth of these two structures. A 1978 guide described "stolid, banal monoliths overshadowing the cluster of filigreed towers that still provide the romantic symbolism that once evoked the very thought of skyline"; another, "like the prongs of a colossally unaligned tuning fork."

The consensus on both sides was clear: The towers evoked strong feelings, whether those sentiments were positive or negative. The buildings could not be ignored; they forced a confrontation between viewer and structure. Perhaps New Yorkers resented the imposition — the World Trade Center towers upset a delicate architectural and psychological status quo by altering the makeup of the Manhattan landscape.

When Petit first happens upon the building designs in an issue of Le Figaro or one of its peers, he proclaims them a work of art. He may be just as enticed by the thrill of their scale as the artistry of their shape, but the dancer in him seems to find a kindred spirit in their composition. He quickly hatches a plan to travel to New York (and here, the dialogue in The Walk rapidly transitions from French to English as Petit practices for his voyage), hang a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, and walk across it — in clear view of thousands of passersby. It's highly daring, and highly illegal. (Indeed, when he finally steps out on the wire, the cops show up flanked by a Port Authority helicopter whose pilot declares that Petit is breaking about a hundred city ordinances.)

In two dimensions, it's easy to see how buildings that dwarf the Eiffel Tower might appeal to this man on the heels of his successful traverse of the towers of Notre Dame. An outsider, Petit isn't acquainted with the fundamental disruption that the towers wrought in Lower Manhattan. As the Guardian reported, "there was precious little demand for such office space" in the area at the time. But the illicit tightrope artist is a notorious troublemaker. He refers to his plot throughout as "the coup" — in short, he's no stranger to disruption.

Upon his arrival in New York, Petit makes a beeline for the towers. The physical reality of them comes as a disappointing blow, with the artist saying something to the nature of, "Nothing about this tells me it is possible." Here, Zemeckis's vivid reconstruction of the towers handily assists this perspective. The towers seem to simply rise out of the earth — they're brash and bold and there's no effort to conceal their origins. Petit laments that his coup is over before it's even began, until he sees a door left felicitously ajar, allowing him access to the still-in-construction upper levels of the tower.

The mechanics of wire-walking, Petit's inner demons, his relations with friends and lovers (Annie, played by Charlotte Le Bon, is framed as both supportive girlfriend and artist in her own right, though always second-shoe to Petit) are all treated quite cursorily. His early life is a brief comedic act, and the sparse segments of self-doubt comes over as caricature. The focus here is on Petit's love affair with the towers, not with any living individual.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance as Petit embodies this with his deft weaving in and out of the upper beams of the tower's top platform. He clambers along the World Trade Center's outer edge, 110 stories above the ground, without so much as a flash of fear. He's at home here. In contrast, his friend and co-conspirator Jeff acts as the screen stand-in for the audience — petrified, sweating bullets, and trying his very best to not look down.

The film is not shy about crediting Petit with the subsequent adoption of the towers as city landmark — in fact, it seems to actively desire that attribution. In an early scene, one insider asks Petit why he's so fixated on the structures, incomplete and unattractive as they are. To him, though, they are gorgeous; a symbol of possibility, the possibility of the "artistic crime of the century." So when Petit finally steps out onto the wire, one giddy observer proclaims his love for the towers. The chief architect of the World Trade Center bestows on Petit a lifetime pass to the observatory. When he completes one trip across the wire, Petit feels the other tower beckoning him back and he eventually traverses a total of six times. A cop — one of the arresting officers — congratulates him on his gumption.

In the end, it is a Frenchman who christens the new masters of the New York City skyline. Amid the political and cultural turmoil that accompanied their construction, it's easy to see how only an outsider could bring a new perspective to notoriously crotchety New Yorkers. And perhaps the World Trade Center was just a little too New York — quirky, imperfect, inaccessible, and not at all easy to grasp, but fundamentally of the city. As a result, the confrontation between cityscape and city residents is a clash of personalities that are a bit too similar to jibe without a mediator. Petit might be that mediator, or at least, this is what The Walk proposes.

From his perch on the Statue of Liberty from which he narrates the film, Gordon-Levitt's incarnation of Petit recounts the history of his lifetime pass to the World Trade Center observation deck. Where there would normally be an expiration date, the number was scrawled out and in its place was inscribed, "forever." It's a poignant reminder that even the seeming permanence of a skyscraper isn't really everlasting, and it serves as a necessary admission that, in the end, The Walk is sheer reconstruction in the aftermath of 9/11. But now, with the Freedom Tower seen by many New Yorkers as a similar blight on the city, One World Trade Center might just need a new Philippe Petit to bring it to life.

Images: TriStar Pictures (4)