Robert Zemeckis takes us on another technological cinematic leap by recreating the Twin Towers in New York City, as he dramatises the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to put a high-wire between the buildings and walk along it unaided at a height of some 412m. One imagines it may have been the challenges involved that peaked the director’s interest, having embraced technical frontiers before with the likes of ‘Back to the Future’ (85), ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (88), ‘The Polar Express’ (04) and ‘Beowulf‘, but the story in itself wonderfully captures the human spirit for adventure and the desire to challenge oneself in spite of the odds, and indeed the naysayers.
The events have already been famously filmed of course as part of the Oscar winning documentary ‘Man on Wire’ (08), and to be honest I wasn’t convinced dramatising it was necessary. Initially, these thoughts were echoed throughout the first half of the movie, which plays out as a dreamy fairytale; whimsical, loose, cheesy and not really leading anyplace worthwhile – all with a disembodied Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally interjecting his own backstory from no less than astride the top of the statue of liberty, itself of course a gift from France.
Here is where a major pitfall, ahem, of the film lies – trying to walk the narrative tightrope between an appropriate homage to the Twin Towers via Petit’s endeavours without becoming jingoistic, and it doesn’t always succeed – perhaps most tellingly when the plot completely omits a major event in the story, which in effect there wasn’t really any need to bring up, but they actually go so far as to fudge central character reactions to mask the truth, ironically bringing attention to the fault. I won’t ruin what it is that’s missing, but suffice to say it’s been done in a typically Hollywood way and obliterated one of the most interesting moments and talking points of ‘Man on Wire’.
Had they not done this, then I would have loved to give the movie a higher grade as when it finally gets going, the high-wire scenes are fantastically breathtaking, with Zemeckis very much pulling off a coup-de-grace to completely salvage the film. Based on my recollection of the documentary, Gordon-Levitt similarly gives a memorably enthusiastic and believable imitation of Petit, although in such instances I think you really have to be French in order to tell if his accent sounds authentic (he studied French literature at university, and was aided by the French cast so it seems likely), or more like someone’s taking the piss. A real shame they played games with the truth but a strong Oscar contender nonetheless. With Charlotte Le Bon and Ben Kingsley in support.