Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts on a wig and smiles enigmatically in this film about Phillipe Petit, the Frenchman who stunned onlookers and the world by walking a wire between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Director Robert Zemeckis tells the story of Petit’s training, and the plan that saw him and a few “accomplices” pull off one of the most daring stunts in history.
One problem Levitt and co can’t ignore is “Man On Wire”, the exceptional 2008 documentary which recounts the same events in such a way that makes a straightforward retelling redundant. This isn’t lost on Zemeckis, a director who also leads with his heart, not his head.
The director tells the story almost as a fairy-tale; narrated by Levitt from the top of the Statue of Liberty, and populated by colourful characters with shaky European accents (particularly Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor). As a result the story leans heavily on sentiment. Petit is shown as a dreamer, an artist with a destiny, with even his most obsessive moments explained away with humour and emotional speeches. Still, it’s a story that’s straightforward and easy enough to get caught up in, thanks mainly to Levitt’s charm.
Just as the schmaltz factor threatens to overwhelm proceedings, we come to The Walk itself, which is where the film becomes unforgettable. The Twin Towers and “The Void” (what Petit calls the vast, terrifying space below the wire) are created with astonishing detail which makes it easy to suspend disbelief, especially when viewed in IMAX 3D.
Style over substance, perhaps, but it is hard to deny such a truly breath-taking finale. Like Petit, Zemeckis sure knows how to put on a show.