The story of Philippe Petit, the only person ever to tightrope walk across the twin towers, is one which has the true ability to captivate people through its sheer brilliance and audacity. Carried out in 1974 when the buildings were the second highest in the world, Petit’s daring walk was only ever captured by a few brilliant stills and those who were fortunate enough to be in Manhattan at the time, as no visual footage was ever taken of it. Petit’s story was first brought up in James Marsh’s Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire, which vividly and accurately portrayed Petit’s life whilst giving testimony to the undying legacy of his actions. Zemeckis’ film can be seen then as a development of the Petit story, as the film puts this stunning act into visual 3D effect with a somewhat mixed outcome.
Whilst the tale of Petit’s life is one that is true, that does not necessarily mean that Hollywood will always stay true in its depiction. As those who have watched Man on Wire will know, there is more to Philippe Petit than the overly enthusiastic Joseph Gordon-Levitt suggests. The fact that this is a family film can certainly make it seem slightly cliché and conventional in some respects, particularly with regards to the fairly drab acting and characterisation. The dubious Americanised French accents put on throughout the film become quickly stifling, whilst their constant attempts to switch back into understandable English come across as even more demeaning sometimes. Yet despite all this, the parts in which the film really exceeds lie undeniably through its use of visual effect, as Zemeckis harnesses the power of 3D to draw our attention away from such misgivings.
Due to the wondrous nature of Petit’s tightrope walk, it seems only natural for Zemeckis to involve stunning 3D effects in portraying such a spectacle. Watching such a film in Imax 3D can be pretty astonishing, as the cinematic views we get of the walk give truly vertiginous effects that suck the audience into Petit’s world. Despite knowing that Petit survives the ordeal from it being a true story, this doesn’t take any enjoyment or tension out of the film. Rather it heightens our enjoyment by knowing that we are alongside the walker, as Zemeckis wonderfully captures the spectacular nature of the film throughout these tightrope scenes.
Yet whilst such stunning effects are enjoyable, it must be said that it can get a little tiresome, as the film can start to feel saturated at times due to its over reliance on animation. The cornball elements of the film are embodied through this fantasy world, as one of the film’s recurrent framing devices depicts Levitt standing on the statue of liberty whilst telling his narrative, with the twin towers shining ephemerally in the background. Whilst scenes like this are no doubt moving, they can sometimes feel overly unrealistic and draw away from any artistic merit the film tries to suggest it deserves.
The ultimate description of this film then would probably say that if you’re scared of heights, don’t watch this. However, there’s more to it than just plain old vertigo, as the sheer immensity of Petit’s actions suggest. This is a film which vividly plays out such fantasy through stunning visualisation, and whilst it may not be all there stylistically, Petit’s tight roping spectacular is certainly powerful enough to mesmerise us into a sense of willing admiration and respect as played out in this film adaptation.
Image: Sony Pictures