As a notorious acrophobe and non-seeker of thrills, I feel uniquely suited to write about the nausea-inducing last third of The Walk. When early trailers were released, I vowed not to be anywhere within a mile radius of the theaters where the film would eventually screen. (I forgot about this, and was not reminded of the promise until well after I finally did see the film.) But in the name of science and masochism, I was there, in 3D and IMAX, to investigate whether people who are afraid of heights should see The Walk .
The first hour and a half show just occasional moments of daring. (I admit, my stomach dropped during Philippe Petit's traverse of the two towers of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral.) But the entire film is an overture to the masterful reconstruction of the World Trade Center in the last half hour, during which Petit crosses between the towers not one but six times. The excitement actually begins earlier, when Petit and his partners-in-crime start setting up the equipment for the eponymous walk late one August night before the "coup" (as Petit calls it) can begin, and concludes with the unflinching aerial portrayal of all six laps between the towers.
The camera is often said to be a stand-in for the audience in film, and I found my cinematic perspective reflected in Petit's pal Jeff, a Frenchman (né Jean-François) with a pathological fear of heights. Poor Jeff is particularly abused in the film, forced at one point to clamber along the outside of the unfinished World Trade Center's upper floors helping Petit with the final preparations. And while the film's finale was pretty wholesale vertiginous, there were a few moments in particular that made me drop down in my seat, cover my face with my hands, and squirm and moan. (I'm not exaggerating — I lost all chill during this movie. The man sitting next to me leaned over to ask if I was okay. And proceeded to remind me that it was just a green screen, as if that would help.)
When Jeff Salvages The "Coup"
Jeff (César Domboy) spends much of The Walk shivering and looking nervously at the Twin Towers. He's Petit's right-hand man during set-up, though, which means he has to step up and put his fears aside when the plan goes horrendously off-schedule. With just an hour till daylight, Petit's rigging is far from complete, so the two men climb over the edge of the tower's upper deck and manually tighten the wire. It was bad enough watching Petit do it nimbly and confidently; it was a whole different matter when Jeff, quivering and whimpering, had to do the same.
When Philippe And Jeff Are Trapped Above An Open Elevator Shaft
Midway through their preparations, Jeff and Petit are nearly discovered by a World Trade Center security guard. They dive under a tarp to avoid him, but find that tarp covered an open elevator shaft (later, a security guard several floors down pokes his head in and wonders aloud when someone is going to fall down the unprotected shaft). Jeff's helmet falls from his head and plunges 110 floors down, and his fearful expression says it all.
When A Seagull Floats Down Over Philippe's Head
Ever the showman, Petit lies down on the wire on one of his later traverses. During his harrowing catnap, he sees a seagull float down over his face. Less terrifying is the presence of a seabird; more so is the wide expanse of sky above Petit, a vertiginous camera frame that reminds us that no matter how high up Petit may have hung his wire, there's a whole lot higher to go.
When Philippe Imagines An Equipment Malfunction
In between my squeals of displeasure, I was actually kind of irked by this scene — it was prominently featured in the trailer, and seemed to show Petit's equipment beginning to break down. Instead, the whole incident is an imagined event, showing him briefly succumbing to his doubts and stumbling before righting himself. It seemed to pander to the desire for a thrill, so perhaps my irritation was more based in how effective it was rather than that it was invented.
When The Fog Clears When He Steps Out On The Wire
Of course, of course the moment Petit steps out onto the wire, the tops of the towers that had previously been shrouded in a dense heavenly mist suddenly cleared, revealing the cityscape hundreds of feet below. The fog was a brief moment of relief, and it was too much to hope for that it last for just a bit longer.
When Philippe Looks Down
The first rule of wire-walking, Petit reports, is to never, not ever, look down. And he breaks it. (You had one job, Philippe.) He actually looks down well before the walk begins, during his initial investigation of the World Trade Center, but it's a nauseating camera sweep that lingers in my mind for the entirety of the film.
When The Walk Is Done — Sort Of
Petit learns to walk a tightrope at a circus and has his first brush with death quite early on. According to the acrobat who teaches him the essentials, most high wire walkers fall in the last two steps — when they believe they've accomplished the feat, but haven't quite made it to the other end. They misstep in those last two steps, overconfident, and fall. Petit experiences this first-hand before he even received the advice, and like his brief look down from the heights of the World Trade Center, it's a moment that lingers. So when Petit finally seems poised to come down off the wire into the waiting arms of the police on either tower, I couldn't help but (out loud, and not very subtly) demand that he not forget his humility in those last two steps.
My palms have never sweat so much as they did during The Walk. It is a masterpiece of three-dimensions, and any reminders to that end don't really mediate the pure realism of seeing it on screen, larger than life and yet totally lifelike. I can't in good conscience recommend it to anyone particularly prone to vertigo, but I survived.
Images: TriStar Pictures (6); Giphy (2)