(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Mark Camacho, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Sergio Di Zio, Daniel Harroch, Soleyman Pierini, Patrick Baby, Marie Turgeon, Joel Rinzler, Inka Malovic, Larry Day, Catherine Lemieux. Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Some dreams are bigger than others. Most of our dreams are relatively small – taking the family to Walt Disney World, or eating a corn dog on Coney Island. They are infinitely doable without a whole lot of planning. Some, however, can be bigger than all the sky.
Take Frenchman Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), for example. As a young boy, he grew fascinated by the circus performers who came to his small village. After learning the basics of walking on wires on his own, he convinced Papa Rudy (Kingsley), patriarch of the White Devils high wire act, to train him, often paying cash for each of Papa Rudy’s secrets. But even becoming a street performer in Paris after being thrown out of his house by his tyrannical father (Baby) isn’t enough, although he meets Annie (Le Bon), a fellow street performer who becomes his girlfriend.
No, he has his eye on bigger things. After walking between spires at the Notre Dame Cathedral, he still feels like there’s something else out there. While on a visit to the dentist’s office, he opens a magazine and sees the plans for the World Trade Center twin towers. He immediately knows what his destiny is to be – to walk on a wire strung between the two towers.
This actual event, chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, took place in 1974 and required years of planning. We see Petit assemble his accomplices (for the act which they called “The Coup”) including photographer Jean-Louis (Sibony) and inside man Barry Greenhouse (Steve) as well as ex-pat J.P (Dale) and shy Frenchman Jeff (Domboy), and of course, Annie.
Just getting the equipment up to the top of the towers is dangerous; it’s not just getting the steel cable up there, it has to be brought from one tower to the other and affixed, then tightened all of which requires specialized equipment as well as some brilliant improvisation – the conspirators get the cable across by shooting an arrow attached to fishing wire, then attaching the fishing wire to a rope and pulling it across, then that rope to a larger rope and finally the steel cable. They also string a wire across so they can communicate without using walkie talkies which could theoretically be intercepted by authorities.
Petit would cross back and forth across the wire for 45 minutes, making eight traverses between towers. His feat made him a bit of a folk hero; he was arrested but not thrown in jail; instead he was required to perform community service which included putting a show on for children in Central Park. Petit would become a resident of New York City (which he is to this day).
Zemeckis wanted to put his audience on the high wire with Petit and in this he mainly succeeds; there are a few CGI shots that look like CGI shots but for the most part your stomach will be lurching and your insides tingling with fear, especially if you have any sort of fear of heights. While I saw the film in standard format, I understand that IMAX and 3D presentations are absolutely jaw-dropping if you can still find the film in those formats.
Gordon-Levitt affects a French accent which is at times a touch over-the-top but otherwise captures the arrogance and single-mindedness of Petit nicely; he also has the athleticism and grace of the French performer. Gordon-Levitt inhabits this role as much as he has any other in his career and this is likely to be one of his signature performances. I’m not sure what his Oscar chances are – I suspect he’ll be on the bubble – but there certainly are going to be those at the Academy who will take notice. He gets some fine support from Le Bon and Sibony, as well as Kingsley in a small but crucial role.
Gordon-Levitt also narrates the movie, sometimes in voiceovers but also jauntily perched in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France which is certainly not a coincidence that Zemeckis put him there. It contributes to the light and airy feel of the film, a delectable confection rather than a heavy-handed entree.
Of course, it’s difficult to view the Twin Towers – excellently re-created here down to the last rivet – without thinking about their fate. There is a moment at the film’s conclusion where it appears one of the towers is shaking as the movie fades to black but if I wasn’t imagining things that’s really the only overt mention of 9-11 in the movie. Zemeckis wisely allows it to remain in the back of our minds, knowing that we won’t be able to prevent thinking about it. He doesn’t try to and in that sense, he makes a more lasting tribute in the film itself which celebrates a good thing that happened there, something that those who witnessed it will never forget. In that sense, this is a fitting memorial to a pair of buildings that will be forever linked to the acts of lunatics that took more than two thousand lives; even if that was to be the destiny of the World Trade Center, it was still something else and something more once upon a time and it is high time that we remember that about them as well.
REASONS TO GO: Vertigo-inducing. Solid performances throughout. Clever narrative devices.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too vertigo-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES: Situation of peril, brief nudity, drug use, some historical smoking and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kingsley and Dale appeared in Iron Man 3.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man On Wire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
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