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The Truth in Midair

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Sony Pictures
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, 2015

Like a reel of film coursing through a movie projector, the history of motion pictures rolls on—if increasingly without the projector or the film.

Two twenty-first century phenomena have changed the way moving pictures are made and perceived. The first is the accelerating use of digital technology and the inexorable rise of a cyborg cinema that, by combining animated and photographic images, compromises the direct relationship to reality that had long been the medium’s claim to truth. The second is the trauma of September 11, 2001, which for many provided the ultimate movie experience that was more than a movie—spectacular destruction, broadcast live, and watched by an audience, more or less simultaneously, of billions.

Both events inform The Walk, the new 3-D movie by Robert Zemeckis that recounts and reconstructs the French aerialist Philippe Petit’s high-wire stroll between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Although amply justified by its thrilling twenty-minute set piece, The Walk (unlike Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s marvelous 2013 exploration of the 3-D void) is not a fully sustained experience. But it is a milestone in the development of digitalized cinema and the memory of 9/11.

Zemeckis is an immensely successful commercial filmmaker whose oeuvre has been characterized by recurring concerns. These include a preoccupation with the ways the American past has been made malleable by the media, mainly TV; a not unrelated fascination with the digital reshaping (or recontextualizing) of the human form; and a fondness for isolated protagonists who develop obsessive bonds with imagined entities.

Back to the Future (1985), Zemeckis’s best-loved movie, is at once celebratory and parodic, with its naïvely oedipal hero, airbrushed sense of the 1950s, and theme-park notion of America. It is a crucial Reagan-era text; Reagan himself quoted the movie in his 1986 State of the Union address when he proclaimed, “where we are going there are no roads.” (Garry Wills referred to Back to the Future several times in a chapter of Reagan’s America that speaks of our fortieth president as “America’s ‘remembered’ self.”)

A less likeable and more ambitious film, Zemeckis’s bleakly saccharine Forrest Gump (1994), rewrote the 1960s and 1970s as a media spectacle—turning the period into a tale told by an unaccountably ubiquitous idiot. His protagonist, like America’s, was a boy from a Deep South small town, born soon after World War II and raised by a single mother, who learns to identify with Elvis, witnesses the desegregation of his state’s schools, is chosen to go to Washington and shake hands with JFK, ambiguously speaks out against the Vietnam war, and eventually attracts a mass movement because he gives people “hope.”

Forrest Gump was not about Bill Clinton, but its success at the box-office and the Oscars helped locate the first Baby Boom president (whose biography so closely parallels Forrest’s) in the national dream-life. In any case, Clinton did materialize in Zemeckis’s next feature, the interplanetary odyssey Contact (1997), where he was edited, or “gumped,” into several scenes and even turned the laser of his concentrated sincerity on the problem of deep messages from deep space.

Philippe Petit’s Twin Towers performance might have been an incident in Forrest Gump. (Petit’s self-described “coup” even occurred a day before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency.) Zemeckis seems to acknowledge this, having his actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrate the movie in a cute French accent much as Tom Hanks drawled his mush-mouthed way through Forrest Gump. The effect is unfortunate. Despite The Walk’s intermittently effective 3D—even Petit’s first high-wire experiments promote on-screen negative space, while every shot of the Twin Towers opens a chasm—the film is initially a slog. “The first half of the movie treads the boundary between mildly irritating and completely unbearable,” A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, drawing attention perhaps to Zemeckis’s own high-wire stunt.

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Warner Bros.
Jodie Foster in Zemeckis’s Contact, 1997

But the stunt is worth the wait. In a sense it’s something we’ve been waiting for since September 12, 2001. Zemeckis’s Petit does not arrive in New York until half an hour into the movie and it takes about as long for the movie, following the lead of James Marsh’s 2008 Petit documentary Man on Wire, to morph into a Rififi-like caper film, with emphasis on the logistics necessary to make the coup possible. The thrills truly begin once, having reached the top of “his” tower, Petit begins scampering around the ledge, winching his wire.

The seven-page introduction to Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin describes Petit’s walk as seen from a variety of perspectives, all of them on the ground. (He also beautifully evokes “a silence that heard itself.”) Zemeckis, in contrast, puts the spectator on the wire with Petit. We share his emptiness, floating beside or sometimes above him. (The musical accompaniment includes a bit of “Für Elise”—which could be worse.)

Replete with subjective shots, Petit’s step-by-step walk from one tower to the other is nerve-wracking. The camera is often virtual; the walk is sweetened with invisible “performance-capture” animation. Yet, however, much predicated on illusion, The Walk is a movie that you watch with the pit of your stomach or the soles of your feet or whatever part of your body registers the visceral fear of tumbling into the abyss, a quarter mile above the future Ground Zero. At one point, simulating the world’s largest roller-coaster, Zemeckis orchestrates just such a headlong plunge 110 stories into the street—and also negates the drop with a soft landing.

Even before The Walk opened it was attacked online as a sacrilege. Some thought that Petit’s stunt (or Zemeckis’s) makes light of the two hundred people who jumped to their deaths on September 11. But it may be that the ecstatic climax of The Walk offers some sort of catharsis or exorcism or even a monument. Petit did not fall—and, at least in this movie, neither do the Towers. Petit has been credited with teaching New Yorkers to love the Twin Towers, and even providing them with a soul. Once reviled as outsized file cabinets, the now imaginary towers suggest the monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

In retrospect, Petit’s performance provided the antidote to Karlheinz Stockhausen tasteless assertion, in the course of a press conference at the Hamburg Music Festival on September 16, 2001, that the events of 9/11 were “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”

Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing.

Like many post-9/11 films, The Walk is, in part, experiential, partaking in the simulated “new real-ness” which with cinema, as an institution, has responded to the loss of authenticity brought about by relentless digitalization. (Paul Greengrass’s 2006 United 93, which more or less demands that its audience live through a doomed flight from take-off to crash, is the most extreme of these, explicit in its use of real time and designed for audience participation.) Petit’s actual walk was approximately three times as long as the filmed sequence but the difference is that, through the magic of digital cinema, Zemeckis is able to place the audience with Petit, on “an island floating in mid-air on the edge of the void.”

The climax of The Walk might have been thrilling even if it weren’t based on a true event—but it is, as the movie tells us, true in most details. This truth provides the necessary reality. The Walk gives new meaning to the term “suspension of disbelief.”