The dramatized, theatrical version of the true story of Philippe Petit, who walked on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center.
That was much better than I expected.
If you’ve read or listened to any reviews you will have noticed that people praise the final 45 minutes of the film, the moment when Philippe Petit is actually doing his audacious stunt. But it lead me to wonder if the rest of the film was any good. If his stunt is only in the final part of the movie and it also takes about 45 minutes before Petit even leaves Paris to travel to New York, then what is the rest of the movie like and is it worth it to see it? What is this movie like as a movie in its entirety?
It’s lovely. The fact is that the final 45 minutes are a visceral experience and so they drown out the rest of the movie in your experience of it, after the curtain closes. But the rest of the movie is great as well. If you can just set aside the French accent of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and just take that as a given, then you’ll get used to it in about 10 minutes and then just set yourself free to enjoy the show.
Director Robert Zemeckis approached this movie as a circus act, you know, with a stunt performed by an artist and an orator who announces to the audience what is happening. A circus act starts with something basic. Always, save the most difficult part for last. And then keep on adding elements and tension and end with a great performance to thrill the audience. That is also the setup of the movie, and the individual scenes also show this setup by how theatrical they are.
Philippe Petit is his own orator and he talks directly to us, the audience. The scenes in Paris are all theatrical and a bit overdone, a bit ridiculous on purpose. There is comedy, there is action, there is passion and romance, there is entertainment, and somehow the film looks more like a fairy tale or something from Amelie (2001) than the real world. The storytelling and the piano music by Alan Silvestri bring back echoes of Forrest Gump (1994), and perhaps Big Fish (2003). For a while it seemed as if Zemeckis got too carried away with this segment and let it run on for too long, and I was relieved when we moved to New York.
I would actually recommend to see the amazing documentary Man on Wire (2008) first. It will show you what a truly outrageous story this is. Then come back and see the cinematic version of the story. Through this movie, the story passes into legend, something exaggerated and laden with extra meaning. Of course, the fact that the Twin Towers no longer exist add another layer of emotion to the whole story. Suddenly, the crazy act of Philippe Petit adds life and soul to the two concrete monsters. Suddenly, the story is no longer just about Petit, but also about the Twin Towers, who were there, and then they weren’t.
And yes, the final 45 minutes are thrilling. The whole movie lead up to it and you start to understand why he did it and what moved him. A sure contender for the Oscar for best special effects. And, I think that seeing this movie in 3D actually adds something to it. In the end, I was just screaming inside my head: “Get off that wire! Just stop it”!
In the end though, the movie feels made of two parts that have a hard time fitting together. The first half is good, second half too, but both are very different in tone. The first half is cute and artsy, the second half serious. You have to like both parts and be able to make a little mental switch.