The Walk – High-Wire Artist Philippe Petit
The Walk (2015) chronicles the story of Philippe Petit, a French wire walker, as he plans an audacious feat to walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. He understands this is both illegal and dangerous, but remains determined to fulfill this dream of his.
As the movie opens, viewers meet Petit who is standing on top of the Statue of Liberty in present-day New York. After a quick introduction, New York transforms into France in the 1970s. After seeing Petit perform as a street entertainer, we see him as an eight-year-old boy where the roots of a lifelong passion first take hold and he falls in love with wire walking.
His inspiration is watching the White Devils troupe at his local circus. He trains himself using four ropes between trees. As his skills increase, the numbers of ropes decrease until he is down to just one. Once comfortable on the single rope, the young man returns to the circus tent to test his skills but the head of the White Devils, Papa Rudy, interrupts and chases Petit from his wire.
Eventually, Papa Rudy agrees to mentor the young man. Philippe even moves in with him to learn the art of performing. The training comes to an abrupt end, however, when Papa Rudy tells Philippe he needs to salute his audience. This innocent comment turns into heated words because Petite does not want to be viewed as a circus performer; not long after this incident, his parents also kick him out.
Petit moves to Paris, where he meets his first accomplice for the World Trade Center. Annie is a fellow street performer who is initially upset because Philippe steals her audience. She agrees to drinks with him where he reveals his World Trade Center dream to her. Annie is skeptical, but responds positively – “If it is your dream, you should do it.”
She decides to help Philippe by inviting him to her art school, where he can hone his skills. This is where he meets his second accomplice and official photographer, Jean-Louis. An accident at the school, however, sends Philippe back to Papa Rudy to learn the technical skills of rigging the high line properly. The duo works together as much as possible before the first illegal stunt happens under the cover of night.
“Always, always, check rigging yourself. Never step on the wire if you have not checked all rigging yourself.”
By now, Philippe is in love with the Twin Towers being constructed in New York, but he wants to test his skills on another landmark first. Under the cover of night, Jean Louis and Philippe rig a high wire between the towers of the infamous Notre Dame cathedral. The feat garners media coverage around the world. While many countries congratulate and celebrate the stunt, France does not.
News of the stunt at Notre Dame hits the papers the same day as a story about the World Trade Center does. This back story excites the daredevil and Petit decides to head to New York with Annie and get a personal look at the Towers. At first, the trip seems to be a failure until a construction worker opens a door that leads to the attic. Once on the roof, Petit is convinced that his dream will come true. “I find myself standing on an island floating in midair.”
As visions of the walk and the line placement fill Petit’s mind, he quickly learns that he needs a third accomplice, Jeff, and the plan really takes hold after that. Papa Rudy returns Philippe’s money from their training days to fund the challenge. Jean-Louis decides that a bow and arrow is the best way to deliver the line from tower to tower without distraction. Philippe picks August 6, 1974 as the date for his feat. He decides to learn more about the Towers by going undercover in a variety of roles. Just three weeks before the walk, he suffers a severe foot injury when he steps on a nail sticking out of a plank while gathering information inside the Twin Towers.
Petit realizes that he needs the help of an American team in New York to help complete the plan. The first man to join the team is a shop owner known as JP, who is able to recruit additional team members to help with minor tasks. The final main member of the team is Barry Greenfield, who works in the North Tower of the World Trade Center and can give the team the access they need.
On August 6th, the plan starts to unfold. Jean-Louis and one of the American accomplices head for the North Tower while Jeff and Philippe work from the South Tower. Everyone else waits on the ground. Due to a few close calls with security, the rigging takes longer to complete than Philippe expected.
Nerves disappear once Petit steps on the wire to begin his walk. As a narrator, Philippe recalls his thoughts after those first steps.
“One foot on the building, one on the wire the outside world starts to disappear. Jeff no longer existed, my tower was deserted. I could no longer hear the sounds of New York. All I could see was the wire floating out in a straight line to infinity.”
As Philippe begins the stunt, Annie alerts the crowd on the street to what is happening. The crowd grows with each step. After arriving on the North Tower, the narrator again recounts his thoughts.
“I arrive on the North Tower feeling the most intense joy, the most profound satisfaction I ever felt in my life.”
Phipippe treks back and forth on the wire, performing multiple midair salutes, dances, kneels, and even lies down on the wire. After 45 minutes, he decides its enough and there are cops on both towers waiting to escort him. Once downstairs, one of the officers admits his surprise and admiration at the stunt. “I gotta tell ya, what you did was something. I know I’ll never see something like that again in my life. You got guts pal, good job.”
The movie wraps up with the present-day narrator returning to explain his fate. Instead of jail, he performs another free show in Central Park. The accomplices return to France, but Philippe stays. The final scene is chilling given the recent history of the towers, they are shown with two lone lights shining on them from below.
Contributing author: Erin James
The Walk – Real Life, Reel Differences
- In the movie, the chosen date for the walk is August 6th. However, the actual event took place at 7:15 AM on August 7th. Here is a clip from CBS News covering the event that day:
- The movie makes it seem as if Annie took to the idea quickly. In reality, she was bombared with love letters and flowers until she listened.
- Philippe Petit was, in fact, inspired to walk across the Twin Towers while reading a magazine at a dentist’s office, which he nicknamed “The Coup”. As shown in the movie, he did actually pretend to sneeze in order to tear out the page, hid it under his jacket, and walked out of the office without getting his toothache treated. In real life, this occurred in 1968 when Petit was 17 (six years before the actual walk in 1974). The movie shortens this timeline.
- Philippe Petit did actually create a scale model of the Twin Towers in real life so that he could practice, as well as to figure out where/how to attach the rigging.
- Philippe completed another important walk on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge in 1973, between the Notre Dame and New York walks, that was never mentioned in the movie.
- Barry Greenfield’s real name was Barney Greenhouse. He was the inside man who agreed to help Petit because he (Greenhouse) had seen Philippe perform as a street juggler in Paris.
- In the movie, the team gets lucky and gets all the way up to the 110th floor of the South Tower to set up. In reality, they only got as high as the 104th floor. The original plan was to bring the equipment up to Barry Greenhouse’s office on the 82nd floor, but the elevator operator accidentally brought them all the way up to the 104th floor.
- In reality, it took Petit three trips to New York to study, plan, and execute the walk. The first attempt at “The Coup” actually failed.
- As depicted in the movie, Petit and his team did have to wear multiple disguises and pose as different people in order to gain access to the building. In all, they spent six months and made approximately 200 visits to the Twin Towers to inspect its architecture and rooftops.
- The team did really use a bow and arrow to get the cable across. Jean-Louis Blondeau’s idea was to tie a fishing line to the arrow, which was shot from one tower to the other. The line was attached to larger ropes and eventually, attached to the steel cable that was pulled across the towers.
- Prior to “The Walk”, there was a “Man on Wire” documentary released in 2008 that showed actual footage and post-event interviews from that day:
Where Are They Now?
Philippe Petit was arrested for his stunt, but a judge dropped the charges in exchange for Petit’s promise to perform a tight rope walk for children in Central Park. In addition, the owners of the World Trade Center forgave Petit and gave him a lifetime pass to the observation deck.
Philippe is currently living as the artist in residence at New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. He still continues to do high wire walks. Some of his other feats include crossing the Grand Canyon and commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Walk by crossing the same distance at a sculpture garden in New York. When he is not on the wire he is an author and noted public speaker. He does have a Facebook page that is periodically updated.
Below are some great images of the event captured from that day:
Annie Allix has kept a low profile, preferring to stay out of the public eye. She did not consult on “The Walk”, alhtough she spoke openly on the 2008 “Man on Wire” documentary, stating “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.”
Papa Rudy, also known as Rudy Omankowski Jr, was an actual wire walker based in France. During his career he completed a 1.25 km walk between two mountain tops in France. It is known to be the longest air walk. He currently trains future wire walkers at Centre Nationale des Artes du Cirque in Chalons-en-Champagne, France.