Many people have a hobby. Some collect Smurfs. Others do DIY. Others like to record their opinions of recent film releases for public consumption.
But not everyone’s the same. In the 1970s, Frenchman Philippe Petit directed all of his free time towards achieving one single goal: walking by tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.
In addition to the obvious perils: the great height, unexpected crosswinds, the possibility that Jeff Bridges might be attempting to climb the towers at the same time to rescue Jessica Lange from King Kong in a poorly realised remake, Petit and his chums also faced the added complication that the WTC was brand new and not yet officially open to the public in August 1974. Also, what he was planning to do was technically illegal. He not only had to sneak in to do it but risked serious jail-time afterwards.
Just as the real life Petit (for this is a true story) faced plenty of obstacles, so too, did onetime Back To The Future and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis in seeking to dramatise this story for the big screen. For one thing, many people watching will probably know the outcome of the famous walk already, potentially robbing the film of any dramatic tension. The story was also already filmed as the 2008 documentary, Man On Wire. This shouldn’t be confused with Bird on a Wire which is something else entirely.
The film begins rather whimsically with a few scenes filmed in black and white with occasional flashes of colour rather like a cheerier version of Schindler’s List. This doesn’t last long.
Others may start to worry when it emerges that US actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing Petit with a French accent, narrating the film while overlooking the towers from the vantage point of the top of the nearby Statue of Liberty. But they need not worry. Levitt is great. His accent is excellent and as the accompanying featurette reveals he quickly demonstrated a rare aptitude for tightrope-walking himself.
While one would expect all the drama to focus on “the walk” itself, the film does a good job of being compelling throughout its running time helped by a good cast and special effects which recreate the doomed World Trade Centre with a strong sense of authenticity. Petit himself seems to have been a somewhat temperamental character, his desire to complete the walk which he sees as a great work of “art” sometimes bringing him into conflict with his long-suffering girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) and equally temperamental mentor Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley). The latter sees the walk as performance only and urges the younger man to wear a safety harness, to no avail.
In the end, Petit’s timing was unfortunate from a publicity point of view. His exploit was knocked off the world news headlines by the news of the resignation of President Richard Nixon the following day, one of the biggest news stories of the century.
Ultimately, Zemeckis’s touch is as sophisticated as Petit’s own rare sense of balance, the film only subtly alluding to the tragic events which most of us primarily remember the World Trade Centre for today.
Review: 4 out of 5
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sir Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: Deleted Scenes
First Steps – Learning To Walk The Wire Featurette
Running time: 123 minutes