“Pure Beauty”: A Review of The Walk

MPAA Rating, PG

USCCB Rating, NA

Reel Rating,    (4 of out 5 reels)            


“People ask me ‘Why do you risk death?’ For me, this is life.”

This opening line wonderfully sums up the philosophy of tightrope walking, perhaps the greatest symbol of navigating this mortal existence in the entire world of art. The Walk shares the most famous circus performance in history: when, on August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) illegally walked 140 feet across a wire strung between the Twin Towers, 110 stories up in the air. In this telling, his partner in crime is director Robert Zemeckis, who once again has created a film that invites his audience to dream big, assured in the knowledge that life is beautiful. 

Like most heroes, Philippe begins with humble origins as a rascally kid in rural France who becomes instantly hooked when he sneaks into a performance by the Omankowsky family. He starts small on the streets before getting his big break, walking across the towers of Notre Dame, which lands him several days in jail for trespassing and his first taste of fame. At the dentist office one morning, he sees a magazine article about the construction of the Twin Towers and draws a small pencil line between them. It is destiny. He organizes a small team for his “le coup”—they constantly practice English for the convenience of the film—then travels to New York for several months of preparation. With surprising ease, he infiltrates the site again and again, disguised as a construction worker, reporter, and even architect. On the big day, he faces numerous obstacles as he tries to get to get to the top unnoticed and string a wire across the void. These scenes are wonderfully choreographed, rivaling the best heist movies. Finally, Philippe is ready to make his walk, but is the world ready for him?

The most obvious question is “why?” Even his team doesn’t know the answer, openly telling him the coup is “ridiculous, madness, and impossible.” Philippe is a man of action, no thinking. “Because it is beautiful,” he tells them. “and because it is impossible.” He was right. The 1970s were a cynical age when filled with cold wars, lying presidents, the rising specter of terrorism, and recently broken-up pop bands. Many New Yorkers hated the towers, calling them “two concrete slabs.” Into this world, Philippe injected an act of pure beauty that defied all reason, encouraging his fellow humans to face their challenges with hope and courage.

It is not enough, however, for something to be aesthetically pleasing. As any advertiser can explain, it is easy to manipulate an audience into accepting an immoral idea through the use of clever craftsmanship. It is possible to condemn Philippe saying he broke a just law and put himself and others into grave danger in the process. Zemeckis understands these objections and addresses them. Philippe indeed breaks the law but holds no grudge against the police or even the laws themselves. “Thank you for your patience,” he tells them as they clamor to get him off the wire. When punished for his crime, he was only too happy to fulfill his sentence. While the task is very dangerous, he does not enter it recklessly, practicing constantly beforehand and going through every possible bad scenario. He also takes care to make sure no one else is put in harm’s way. He reinforces the wire to make sure it stays. When the police attempt to cut the wire without slacking it, he insists they lower it gently. “Someone might get hurt,” he shouts. The one sad result of all this is Philippe’s inability to extend his bravery to his personal life, and he girlfriend breaks up with him shortly after the walk. Amazing as it is, tightrope walking is only a symbol of the journey one must take with our fellow man. Philippe also never mentions religion explicitly, although he does have brief moment out on the wire where his heart is filled with deep gratitude for this chance.

If you think $20 might seem like a lot to pay for an IMAX 3D film, you are correct. Most films, even good ones, are perfectly acceptable to watch on a decent HD television. Yet, this is not the case here. In my many years of film reviewing, I would say this is only one of three that must be seen in this format (the others were Life of Pi and Gravity). Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s camera flows freely to give the audience a sense of the enormity of the towers with a healthy sense of vertigo. The script, written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, is fun and snappy like Philippe himself. I couldn’t help grinning the whole time, like I was in on Philippe’s secret.

The elephant in the room is of course the ultimate fate of these two beautiful giants, and it is very impressive the gentle way Zemeckis handles this sensitive issue. Philippe’s feat was the polar opposite, an act of joy and love. This film feels every bit the same. 

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.