One of the most memorable appearances at the 2009 Oscars occurred during the award for best documentary feature, when French tightrope walker Philippe Petit – the subject of James Marsh’s mind-boggling Man on Wire – thrilled the Hollywood glitterati with some legerdemain, including balancing the coveted statuette on his chin.
Marsh’s film chronicled Petit’s gobsmacking feat of traversing between New York’s Twin Towers back in 1974, the “artistic crime of the century” as it was called. However, if anything was lacking in that wonderful documentary, it was the money shot of Petit negotiating that perilous perambulation on film. Sadly, there are only photos of his astonishing achievement.
Who better to bring the story to the big screen than director Robert Zemeckis, who purchased the rights to Petit’s story years before Man on Wire was made and whose special-effects savvy has delivered blockbuster riches with the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump. No surprise, then, that The Walk is drenched in CGI magic to re-create the Big Apple of the 70s and provide a suitable backdrop to Petit’s stroll into history.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a confident star performance, capturing the likeable Petit’s charisma, and thanks to the great man’s training, looking every inch the daredevil wire-walker. Able support comes, too, from Charlotte Le Bon as Petit’s loyal girlfriend and Ben Kingsley as the young man’s guide and mentor. But this is Gordon-Levitt’s show, often narrating to the camera in perfect Franglais from his perch atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch, with the World Trade Center glistening behind him.
Much like the Oscar-winning documentary, Zemeckis structures the story like a heist or caper film. After all, Petit’s scheme to accomplish his dream meant much planning and subterfuge. With this in mind, Zemeckis keeps the mood nice and breezy with cool, jazzy music, as we follow Petit from unicycling street performer in Paris to the top of the Towers on a misty August morning. But the on-screen planning and recruitment of his motley crew of (mainly) moustachioed accomplices lacks the deft blend of lightness and suspense that, say, made Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can such a joy.
Inevitably, the re-creation of Petit’s guerilla high-wire “coup” is the focal point, and what an experience it is, particularly if you get the chance to watch the film in 3D IMAX. Those with vertigo issues will probably find it an excruciating experience (as one of Petit’s poor acrophobic accomplices discovers while setting up the equipment on that fateful morning). But even if you have a strong stomach for dizzying, vertiginous heights, the walk (in reality the tightrope spanned 140ft at 1,350ft in the air) will still have the palms of your hands in cold sweats, I guarantee. The real Petit was out there for 45 minutes; in the film it’s a good 20 minutes of screen time, and there was a part of me screaming for Petit/Gordon-Levitt just to call it a day after his second or third stroll across the skyline.
But in a way, that’s part of the film’s problem. In Cast Away and Flight, Zemeckis’s coup de théâtre is a spectacular plane crash at the beginning, which cannot quite sustain the drama of the rest of the picture. Here, it’s the other way around, as Petit’s early life seems a mere appetiser for the main event. Meanwhile, his obsession with the Towers is almost taken as a given and his previous high-wire escapades are either barely covered (Notre-Dame towers) or ignored (Sydney Harbour Bridge), as the audience anticipates what is undoubtedly a breathtaking re-creation of Petit’s ultimate claim to fame.
With the Marsh film, Petit’s life story and the preparations for the “coup” were an integral part of the entertainment. Zemeckis has aimed high but on this occasion the documentary reality of Man on Wire trumps the wonder of Hollywood artifice.
The Walk is now in IMAX cinemas and goes on general release on Friday 9 October