It starts with a pain in the soles of my feet. I've never had a decent explanation as to why this might be, but that's where it starts. My hands, already clammy, become soaked with sweat. My shoulders end up somewhere around my ears, my face screws up and I peer at the screen through my eyelashes.
I'm not just scared of heights; I'm scared of footage of other people at great heights, and yet I find myself drawn to it. There's an online video of two television mast workers free-climbing up a 1,768ft tower, which I've watched countless times, along with dozens of YouTube clips of people – predominantly young Russian men, for some reason – messing about at the top of tall buildings. All of them make me wince and go “aargghh”. So when I heard about The Walk, Robert Zemeckis's dramatisation of Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the old World Trade Center in New York, I booked a ticket immediately. Apparently, there have been reports of vertigo sufferers vomiting at screenings, and for some bizarre reason I wanted a piece of that action.
The story, beautifully told in James Marsh's Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, is pretty well known. Petit, transfixed by an image of the twin towers that he stumbles across in a French magazine, resolves to pull off the “artistic crime of the century”. Thanks to some good planning, good friends, lax security and phenomenal talent, he manages to pull it off, spending 45 minutes balancing a quarter of a mile above the ground while thousands of morning commuters gasp in amazement.
We know he doesn't fall off. We have nothing to worry about. His safety is guaranteed. And yet The Walk, with its $35m budget, beautiful CGI and extraordinary 3D effects, is all about making us believe that something could go badly wrong, that he could plunge to the ground at any moment. It's £16.25 for two hours of terror! That's just my bag. Annoyingly, Zemeckis makes thrill-seekers work hard for their eventual reward; we have to wade through biographical irrelevancies, an eminently punchable love story and some excruciating narration from Petit's character, delivered by Joseph Gordon-Levitt from the top of a computer-generated Statue of Liberty.
When Petit reaches the “edge of the void” on his first fact-finding trip to the roof, stepping tentatively on to a steel girder, I hear my girlfriend murmur: “To be honest, I kind of want him to fall off.” But I am already sliding down deep in my seat, gripping the armrests and making quiet wailing noises. This is what I've come for: to be reduced to a gibbering wreck.
The second half of the film doesn't disappoint in this regard, with a number of objects unnecessarily plummeting huge distances in order to emphasise Petit's distance from the ground. Then, as the “coup” unfolds, we get to accompany him on his walk, watching his progress from every conceivable angle, most of them frightening.
There are times when I have to shut my eyes for brief moments of relief before pathetically peeking through my fingers to see if he's got to the other side yet. Of course, he makes it eventually, we know he does. But then he turns around and comes all the way back, my panic returns and I gnaw my knuckles red.
“Parlez-vous Americano?” shouts a police officer at Petit from the roof of the South Tower. “This dude is righteous!” exclaims an observer on the ground. Yep, if the visuals don't make you howl in anguish, the dialogue certainly will – but no amount of Hollywood shlock can diminish the beauty of what Petit achieved that day. The Walk manages, via brilliant special effects, to give us an idea of what it felt like, and judging by the pain in the soles of my feet, it must have been bloody terrifying.
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