So, they finally did it. They made a movie about a juggler. A major motion picture about one of us. A large budget movie with a Hollywood producer, and a top director. About a real actual juggler. Wake me, I must be dreaming.
There are many questions that immediately come to mind but the first and most important is, of course, how is it? Is it good? That’s far more important than is it accurate, is it insulting, is it offensive, is it expensive, is it funny, is it sad. And the answer is yes. Yes, yes, no, no, yes, yes, yes.
It’s good alright. It’s amazing! A movie about a juggler and its awesome!
But wait, didn’t they make a movie about a juggler, a few years ago, specifically, about Philippe Petit? Well, yes, they did and now they made another one about him. But “Man on Wire,” directed by James Marsh, was a documentary with a small budget and little distribution. It was great though; it won the Oscar for best documentary in 2008, and was more historically accurate than “The Walk.” But “The Walk” is more accurate in terms of the feel of the events depicted, the impression, putting you inside, as opposed to “Man on Wire” which was viewed from the outside looking in.
When Philippe finished his historical (and frankly CRAZY) high-wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers on August 4th, 1974, he drew a large crowd of spectators below on the ground and basically the whole world on the TV news. But when he finished his walk he was immediately arrested. The Fuzz (as the police were known in those carefree days) couldn’t stop him once he began the walk. They weren’t going to go out on the wire and grab him (how could they?) and they didn’t want to cause him to fall, so they waited impatiently until he finished the walk (after 45 minutes), and then grabbed him (rather acrimoniously in both films) and arrested him.
The arresting officer didn’t know what the exact charge was to be on the arrest report (trespassing? attempted suicide? resisting sanity?) so he simply wrote, ‘man on wire.’ The name stuck, the rest is history.
“The Walk” is based on Philippe’s published autobiography, “To Reach the Clouds.” It is told in the first-person with Philippe (played by Josef Gordon-Levitt ) standing on top of the Statue of Liberty (also a gift from France but less unconventional), looking toward the majestic twin towers and reminiscing. Reminiscing about how he snuck 450 pounds of equipment up a hundred ten stories and hooked up a rigging on both towers and a wire across them right under the nose of construction workers, administrators, architects, and security guards. It boggles the mind. A rag-tag hippie street performer up against the Empire.
And what about the risk of falling to a horrible death?! That would be very embarrassing. And what about high-winds and birds? His avuncular mentor Papa Rudy (played by Ben Kingsley) advises him to wear a safety harness. Philippe refuses. It must be real. I’m only going to do this once.
The Papa Rudy character is a composite of several friends, teachers, and mentors of Philippe including Francis Brunn who helped finance the project. Francis’ name is not mentioned in “The Walk” but it is in “Man On Wire.”
Philippe tells about his early life in Paris and the events leading up to the walk. How he saw a high-wire act in the circus and taught himself how to do it at home. He tied a thick rope between two trees and wrapped the rope around six times and held it together with wire hangers. After he mastered walking across, he cut and removed one of the ropes. Step by step he slowly mastered each stage until each rope was removed but one.
With his slack-rope, unicycle, and clubs he heads to the streets to express himself artistically and make some francs (French money, not hot dogs).
One day he sees a drawing of the under-construction twin towers in a newspaper (they are going to be even taller than the Eiffel Tower! Sacre Bleu!).
It dawns on him that someone must walk a wire across these towers. And that someone must be him.
He then goes on to gather a team of like-minded cuckoos to help him do the walk, including a pretty girl (Annie Allix, played by Charlotte Le Bon), and so there’s love interest too. Well he is French, after all.
He is definitely portrayed as a juggler, a street-performer, a comedian, and a wire-walker. There isn’t A LOT of juggling in the movie, but there is some. He is clearly juggling four clubs on a unicycle in one scene, and juggling three balls in front of an appreciative crowd in another. He’s a juggler; there is no way he’s not a juggler in this movie. By the way, did I mention that he is a juggler?
And that he’s the main character? And the whole movie is about him?
In fact, in Philippe’s 2011 one-man stage show, “Wireless” (reviewed in eJuggle), he juggles and doesn’t wire-walk at all.
Philippe, who is 65, was honored at the New York premiere of “The Walk” in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on September 26th, 2015. He was the guest of honor, and after the filming, the director took to the stage and gazed up at Petit, Gordon-Levitt, and Le Bon who were all sitting together in the Box of Honor. He pointed them out to the audience to thunderous applause. Afterwards they all signed autographs and shook hands with the crowd.
All this makes Philippe the most famous juggler since Rastelli and the only juggler whose name is recognizable.
Because when you have Diana Ross you don’t say, “We have a singer,” you say, “We have Diana Ross.”
But when you have Anthony Gatto you don’t say, “We have Anthony Gatto,” you say, “We have a juggler.”
And no one knows that WC Fields was a juggler, except a juggler.
So if you don’t go see this movie immediately you’re very bad.
And it’s worth it because they somehow film the twin towers like they really exist and show what Philippe saw up there looking down, and words cannot describe it. It’s incredible. Oh there, I just described it with words. Anyway…
Ok, when you have a $35 million dollar budget you can do anything. $35 million to make a movie about a juggler. In 2-D, 3-D, and 3-D iMax, choose your poison.
The top two stories of the tower were reconstructed on a sound-stage. A wire was connected from the model (the reconstruction, not a skinny girl in next season’s shoes) to a pole (no, not a Polish person, an anchored pole) 12 feet off the ground, and the Walk was reenacted on it. The view from up there is breath-taking. Hollywood magic brings it to life. Did I say magic? NO! No, magic involved. Technology, not magic. Juggling, not magic.
Philippe himself taught Joseph Gordon-Levitt how to high-wire walk for the film. Gordon-Levitt also learned how to speak French and talk with a Parisian accent for the film.
Why didn’t they just get an actor who spoke French and knew how to high-wire walk for the part in the first place? Because that’s not how they do things. They choose the actor they want, then he has to learn all the relevant skills.
It is directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forest Gump, Castaway), produced by Tri-Star Productions, and is doing well and has already made back all its production costs and millions more. Millions. Of dollars. About a juggler.
The other thing is that in “Man on Wire,” while Philippe is being arrested, some news reporters jump in as he’s being led out of the entrance to the building in hand-cuffs. Someone asks him the prosaic question, “Why did you do it?”
Ok, they’re reporters; they have to ask something, you can’t really blame them for that.
If you’ve ever come off stage after a big successful strenuous show, you know it’s almost impossible to speak. You’re too charged with energy, too pumped with adrenaline, too high to carry on a mundane activity like talking or answering questions. How can you talk when you’re made out of lightning?
Imagine that feeling multiplied by a gajillion. Philippe not only just finished a show in front of thousands of people and televised to THE ENTIRE WORLD, but he also just survived walking between two buildings a hundred ten stories up, with nothing below but space and gravity.
So when the reporter asks him, “Why’d you do it?” he looks aghast and says, “There is no ‘why.'” That’s his answer – you figure out what that means.
In “Man on Wire,” this is recorded and (the recorder is being recorded) so we see it.
But in “The Walk” it gets the Hollywood treatment. It doesn’t have to be exactly historically accurate, it only has to be entertaining. But if you’re lucky, it can also be artistically valid. So in “The Walk,” Philippe answers, “There is no ‘why.'” but goes on to say what he would have said if he wasn’t on an adrenaline-induced acid trip. He talks about the glory of taking a beautiful idea and making it into a reality against all odds.
In a world where no one cares about anything but Thor, Spiderman, and Batman, we have our own superhero, and he’s real. And he’s a juggler. And one last thing. Did I mention that he’s a juggler!