In 2008, the documentary Man on a Wire chronicled performance artist Philippe Petit’s grand feat of walking between New York’s Twin Towers on an illegal high-wire. The film gained abundant critical acclaim, and even went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary. It would be expected then, that writer-director, Robert Zemeckis (Flight), would have had a new angle or component to the story that hadn’t already been so effectively told, yet after viewing, it’s clear that blockbuster graphics are the only new element that this film can contribute to Philippe’s legacy.
Set in the early 1970’s, Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a struggling street artist in Paris, who makes a living by wire walking and juggling. Always on the look out for the perfect place to suspend his high-wire, he soon sets his sights on the Twin Towers in New York, which are both soon to be finished construction. After failing his first real performance crossing a lake, Philippe becomes determined to redeem himself through a number of death-defying acts, including walking between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, before finally heading to the city that never sleeps. With the help of his “accomplices”: his girlfriend, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), the Circus Ring leader turned mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), and his “official” photographer (Clément Sibony), the team sets out to bring Philippe’s dream into reality.
The one thing that can truthfully be said of Gordon-Levitt’s (Looper) performance is that he brings an unbridled enthusiasm to Philippe, which you can’t help but be engaged by. There’s a certain smarminess to him though, which isn’t helped by his at times exaggerated accent and a distractingly bad haircut, but as the only driving force of the film he succeeds. Kingsley (Ender’s Game) employs an equally noteworthy accent of undetermined origin, although does at least so on purpose, and provides the only real connection that Philippe has of interest. Of course, their scenes are few, but when both are on-screen, there are sparks of the kind of story telling that the film should have better employed.
There are a number of factors that seem to hinder the film from crafting a satisfying package in which to deliver its finale. Besides Philippe and Papa Rudy, most other characters are given little development beyond the point of their purpose or first impression. Le Bon’s (Yves Saint Laurent) Annie serves to be not much more than someone Philippe can relay the importance of the Tower’s walk to, which is reinforced by the fact that a decent portion of the film passes before there’s even actual confirmation that the two are dating. Philippe spends so little time connecting with the characters around him, that when the climax has come and gone, the emotional impact fizzles out the moment we’re meant to care about anyone other than him, with the exception of Kingsley.
More so, in the build up to the increasingly anticipated high-wire moment, there’s a clear lack of drama, which isn’t actually caused from a lack of obstacles. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as there are multiple hitches and setbacks that plague Philippe’s plans. The real problem lies in the resolution of these complications, which are consistently solved with either little effort or no effort at all. By the time Philippe and his accomplices begin scouring the towers, there’s a clear pattern established that any difficulty, regardless of severity, is not actually a problem at all, removing most of the tension and any dramatic satisfaction to be had. Even Philippe’s own performance anxiety, which is the closest the film comes to giving him any form of internal turmoil, is essentially solved with him just deciding not to be anxious anymore.
The film also employs a fairly annoying framing device, where upon Philippe addresses the audience from atop the Statue of Liberty in some form of dreamscape. While giving some insight into his character, he’s mainly used to give unnecessary narration and plot explanations, and to also make on-the-nose grandiose statements about life. Perhaps without this crutch, the film would have more solidly relied on developing character and plot, rather than simply describing them.
When the final walk does come though, the visual effects are rather breathtaking (which admittedly pushed the film up a whole star), and the mediocre storytelling that has preceded it matters little. Zemeckis uses 3D in some rather interesting ways in the first half of the film and its implementation at the giddy heights of the towers turns the dangerous feat into a true spectacle. Ultimately, this proves to be the only thing that it delivers that wasn’t already in its superior documentary predecessor, and whether or not it makes a screening worthwhile will be left up to the viewer.
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