In 1974, French-man Philippe Petit did the unthinkable by illegally hanging a high wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City, proceeding to walk between the Towers a total of four times before being arrested on sight. Most of us know this story, you’ve probably heard of it and may have even seen the excellent documentary on the subject, 2008’s Man on Wire. While that documentary serves as a perfectly entertaining account of the events, it was perhaps inevitable that Petit’s story would be dramatised in film. The approach given here is hardly all that dramatic, but rather fairy tale-esque, with Robert Zemeckis delivering a colourful account on a man who dared to embark upon an impossible dream.
The story is delivered to us through Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on-top of the Statue of Liberty, over-looking the skyline of NYC, amongst the clouds, presenting him as a larger than life and highly flamboyant story-teller. From the very start of the proceedings, it is very clear that Zemeckis is aiming for a very family friendly, light and whimsical tale instilling a sense of wonder in the dreams of Petit. The film charts the events leading to the walk between the Towers, a sequence of events that allows us to witness Petit becoming a passionate performer, as well as his attempts to gather together a group of accomplices to help him hang his wire between the Towers, a dream he pursues when he first lands his eyes on the 1,362 feet skyscrapers in a magazine as a teenager.
Much of the film is dedicated to the caper-esque proceedings of Petit putting a team together to help accomplish his dream. Petit is shown to be a very arrogant man, very much focused on his own ambition with the hope that the magnitude of what he is doing is enough to convince others to aid him. But Petit is charming none the less, in no short part due to Levitt’s flamboyant and highly energised performance. He does well to keep the arrogance as very much part of Petit’s personality, but uses his natural charisma to charm throughout. The French accent may take a little getting used to, but his physicality and composure more than allow him to convince as a man capable of the feats performed by Petit.
The build-up to the main event itself is, of course, not quite as interesting, and as a result the film does often feel like it is in too much of a rush to get to its moment of sky-scraping spectacle before it has effectively established the players who helped get Petit up there. The Caper-esque tone does benefit this approach, with Alan Silvestri’s score providing a zippy and quick tempo as the film builds to the climatic walk. However, no character truly feels all that defined, with only their relationship with Petit truly defining their role. This is a shame because the supporting cast includes some very talented actors, from the gorgeous Charlotte Le Bon as Petit’s girlfriend Annie, to James Badge Dale as one of Petit’s New York based accomplices, J.P.
When we finally do get to the titular walk, Zemeckis truly pulls every trick out of the bag to construct one of the most spell-binding and thrilling sequences of recent memory. With carefully rendered visual effects, Zemeckis and his team delicately and rather beautifully recreate an early 70s New York skyline, as well as bringing the Towers themselves back to glorious life. In IMAX 3-D, the high wire journey taken by Petit back and forth is nerve-shredding and high octane in a very literal sense. There is great deal of tension, despite the fact we know the outcome, but Zemeckis revels in keeping us up there for as long as possible, joining Petit in every trick and rooting for him to keep going. There are elements which don’t work, a strange appearance of a terrible CGI seagull further pushes the movie into rather goofy territory, but it is not enough to rob the film of its capacity to thrill in these moments, the moments you bought a ticket for.
By the end of the proceedings, you share in Petit’s elation, but there is a tendency to have a few too many moments of reflection, tying up numerous points which frankly we don’t entirely care all that much about. But its final moments of reflection, as it makes its final tribute to the Towers, is oddly and quietly affecting, if a tad on the nose. The slight under-performance of this film at the box office may yet suggest audience’s are not ready to engage with the Towers in such a text, but it is a respectful film, one which holds a very loving and nostalgic gaze towards the Towers, emphasised by focusing on an event which made the whole world fall in love with them in some capacity.
For those looking for something with the same level of grit as Flight will be very much disappointed, as Zemeckis has very clearly set out to make a very family friendly flick for all ages to enjoy, which I think was a wise move. This is a celebration of imagination and determination to pursue a dream, a message which surely would have more of an effect on a younger audience. It makes the film feel very much like a fairy tale, if a little cartoonish at time, but it represents some of Zemeckis most ground-breaking digital effects work (and that really is saying something), offering spectacle unlike anything else, worthy of taking that first step.