by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Robert Zemeckis
Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Northern French accent is very impressive in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk. “He never gives up,” says his girlfriend Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon). After Philippe Petit walked across a high wire strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center, he dumped her for a woman who came onto him after his appearance on the local news. In the movie, we never see the infidelity; Annie just peaces out in a cab like nothing too bad happened.
It has been over a month since Islamic terrorists killed 130 people at a concert in Paris. One month later diplomats are in Paris, talking about who will pay for the cost of fighting climate change. The Associated Press article reported that the countries were close to an accord; a group of hard-line countries represented by a Malaysian lawyer named Gurdial Singh Nijar explained that the meeting was “going backwards," since India, China and Malaysia would never agree to any of the conditions set forth by Western democracies.
Annie Allix has had to watch her relationship with Petit glorified. She is presented in The Walk as an ultimately innocuous bystander to his 140 foot-walk across the sky. One hundred and forty feet does not sound like a very far distance, but Petit managed it several times. Bystanders clapped and cheered. Afterwards, his criminal charges were dropped and he was even honored as a local hero.
That was 1974. Two years earlier, eleven Israeli Olympic team members had been taken hostage and murdered by the Palestinian group Black September, with support from anti-Semitic German groups. It did not take much time for people to forget about that. We all have short memories, so it is nice to remember what Mr. Petit did. His girlfriend remembers it, too. In the documentary about Petit's walk, Man On Wire, she explains, "My life was completely consumed by his, and he never thought to ask me whether I had my own destiny to follow. It was quite clear I had to follow his.”
It is remarkable how people can ignore what it happening all around them, and at times even necessary. In The Walk, Petit explains to a customs guard what his plans are, and the guy laughs and waves him through LaGuardia. Petit even employs more than one willing American in his act of terrorism. Such a thing would never happen today, and in fact in seems an insult to towers lost to history that Petit even suggested he would perform his feat again. I mean, why would we want him to? He’s a dick who forced his girlfriend to watch from the ground below through binoculars.
In order to drag out the tension during his walk, Zemeckis includes the appearance of a seagull. A helicopter emerges shortly thereafter, further disturbing the relative peace of Mr. Petit’s walk. The seagull looks angry: there were seagulls before men built towers, and decided to walk across them for no discernible reason.
Now some white men want to set back the economies of developing nations in order to ensure that pollutants are no longer pumped into the atmosphere, and fossil fuels burnt at quite the same rate. If the gesture is reasonable on the part of the assorted diplomats involved, it is also somewhat hypocritical. After all, Western nations were the perpetrators of the original crime to the environment — now that historically less prosperous nations finally have the economic advantages that come with industry, the West explains, “No, we've decided that’s enough!” and has the gall to ask them to pay for it!
It is easy enough for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to substitute for a Frenchman. He actually plays Petit as a bit of a narcissistic asshole, and the constant smirk that dashes back and forth across his face is never wiped off, not even as he crosses skyscrapers. In the days after the walk he was so happy. He had become a sort of honorary American, and as a showman, he enjoyed this new caricature of himself.
Zemeckis' movie, which is about a half hour too long, tries to turn The Walk into a sort of heist caper. This would be great, except that every single one of Petit's associates was a white guy with a beard or moustache who had absolutely no personality. Gordon-Levitt is forced to carry the day. He is entertaining enough, but it's clear that Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne have no great love for Petit himself, who comes across as a maniacal dick.
Philippe Petit did not care why his girlfriend helped him walk on that wire. It only mattered to him that he achieved his goal, and what happened afterwards was a mere consequence of his desire. This subtlety was completely excluded from The Wire, constituting a great disappointment, because it is only interesting thing about the story. Petit's fuck-everyone-but-me perspective is a very Western attitude, and it is not just a destructive one — it is a self-destructive one.
What stuns me is the lack of empathy in The Walk, and by the West in general. Terrorist attacks are awful, sinister stuff. Any regular murder becomes a mystery that is never solved until we understand the motives of the perpetrator. For some reason, we have a different perspective on mass murders, actions so objectionable they seem to most people to defy motivation. That is a mistake in judgment, for every murder should demand an equal amount of horror and introspection. With the attacks on the Bataclan, the general understanding seems to be that some specific villains are involved: maybe the Joker, or Scarecrow, or Lex Luthor? I mean, who really cares, get them!
You know, Donald Trump is a disgusting creature, but at least he identified a problem and explained the steps he would take to solve it. A bunch of politicans are more concerned about striking non-binding "agreements" to limit emissions from countries that will never stop polluting, and couldn’t care less about the vagaries of international accords. The West is in a war, but they do not know the war they are in, and would not be able to identify the villains or their motivations if asked. Meeting in Paris at this time proves how exactly dense they are.
Petit could never stroll into Manhattan today to start making his terrorist-esque plans. Walking across a wire seems quite hard, but maybe not as difficult as taking your own life in order to destroy the lives of people you never even know. That our enemies are willing to go to such lengths for either their religion or their hatred of our world should say something about the conditions in it. This violence is a sickness, but it is also a symptom.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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