Robert Zemeckis’ 3-D magical and emotional spectacle, “The Walk,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as high wire artist Philippe Petit, who walked more than 100 stories above the ground between the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974, was a perfect choice to kick off the 53rd New York Film Festival Saturday at Alice Tully Hall.
Actors Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Cesar Domboy, Clement Sibony, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz and Steve Valentine, who Zemeckis called “his accomplices in the coup” – as Petit called his walk and the people who helped him pull off his historical feat – joined the director on stage during his introductory remarks before the film’s first screening at 6 p.m.
“This has been a passion project for me for many, many years, and everybody who’s on the stage stepped up to bring their passion to it, and you can see that on the screen when you finally see the film,” said the director from the podium. “I’m so proud to be able to be here tonight and present this extremely unique New York story here at the opening of the New York Film Festival.”
Mr. Zemeckis, the director behind technological marvels like “Flight” and “Back to the Future,” has magically recreated the towers and dares you to look down. “I know I’ll never see anything like that again in my life,” says the cop in awe to Petit before arresting him for his illegal trespass. The film brings this event magically back to us from a time before there were cellphones to videotape and record everything. (Petit’s crossing is told in the Oscar-winning 2007 documentary, “Man on Wire,” directed by James Marsh, but sadly there is no videotape of the historical event.)
Most of all “The Walk” is about art and optimism and the perseverance and resilience of New Yorkers. The cinematic re-creation of the towers is emotionally heart wrenching, but “The Walk” is ultimately an uplifting love letter to New York. During the final scenes of the walk, Petit, as portrayed by Gordon-Levitt, kneels on the wire and murmurs, “I salute first the wire, then the Towers, and then I salute the great city of New York.” Petit continues to live in Manhattan.
Earlier in the day at the press conference and screening of the film at the AMC IMAX Theater in Lincoln Square, moderated by Kent Jones, director of programming for the New York Film, a journalist asked about the scene where the cop pats Petit on the back, and whether Petit’s risky walk in defiance of the law can still remain effective as a subversive piece of art when the cop applauds his action even as he arrests him.
As to whether wire walking is art, Zemeckis replied, “I certainly think it is, and it’s as much an art form as poetry, in my opinion.”
On whether art can still be subversive after the cop patted Petit on the back, Gordon-Levitt noted, “My answer is yes. In fact, ideally what an artist can do is build a bridge and bring someone over and show them something and have them appreciate something they might not have appreciated before, as opposed to just keeping the sides split, in which case you’re sort of just preaching to the choir.”
Steve Valentine does some serious scene stealing in the movie as a businessman who works in the building and facilitates Petit’s walk by helping him gain access to bring in his complicated equipment the night before the walk. He told me on the red carpet that, coincidentally, he met Petit at a venue called the Magic Place in Hollywood before making the film. “I got a picture of him and didn’t realize a year later I would be part of this movie,” he told me. “What inspires me about him is that he does what he’s called to do without questioning it. He just does it. It’s a calling.”
Christopher Browne, who co-wrote “The Walk” with Zemeckis and is now working on a science-fiction film with the director, told me on the red carpet that the film is a study in positivity. “It’s not about the tragedy of the towers. It’s about the life of the towers. They were living breathing entities. And someone like Philippe, from a totally different country, saw the beauty in them and was willing to risk his life to connect them with his wire.”
Browne consulted with Petit on the script, which was very close to his book and real-life events. “The only factual difference is he crossed eight times and in the movie he crosses six times. He was up there for 45 minutes. We couldn’t put the whole thing (up there). But otherwise his thoughts, the poses he does, the almost ballet moves he does were absolutely based on Philippe’s detailed notes and his book.”
The co-writer added that Gordon-Levitt spent eight days with Petit to learn how to juggle, unicycle and walk on the wire. “He also learned little tricks that I don’t even know, about what to eat on the morning of a walk and things like that.”
I managed to get to Gordon-Levitt despite a journalist with a camera who kept yelling over me begging the actor to say hello to South Korea. When he could finally hear, Gordon-Levitt told me, “The movie is very much a love letter to these two towers and, of course, we all think of the tragedy of the World Trade Center Towers, but with any tragic loss it’s important to remember the good times, as well, and celebrate that and have that catharsis, that positivity.”
The glamorous after party took place at Tavern on the Green, and the cast members and director partied until nearly 2 a.m. despite television junkets planned for later that day.
“The Walk” opens wide on October 2.