Film nerds will remember a documentary released some years ago called Man On Wire. A mix of footage, reenactment and present-day interviews painted the story of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers. (I remember this film so vividly I described its Academy Award nomination as “a year or two ago” to Sean when it fact it won in 2008).
The achievement, the thing to see, is of course the walk itself. In dizzying IMAX 3D, the effects glorifying the height are so realistically rendered that audience members feel real vertigo. If you’re not big into heights, may I remind you that the World Trade centre stood 1,362 feet above the ground, and Petit made his walk without a net. This has induced nausea and even vomiting in some audience members, and while I felt fine in that respect, I did experience some spine-tingling anxiety when nearly the whole of the second half of the film is spent up in the clouds, perched extremely precariously, sometimes tauntingly so, upon a wire we know to be improperly installed.
Petit narrates the story to us from atop another of New York’s tallest destinations – the Statue of Liberty’s flaming torch. This narration lends a fairy-tale quality to the film that it didn’t need or benefit from, and in fact it felt like an affectation. The first half of the film is slow-going. It takes an hour to get to the good part, but if you believe that things are worth waiting for, then you’re in for a treat. I’ve had 3D fatigue for quite some time now, but here again is a movie that actually uses it (like Everest) not just to drive up ticket prices, but to stoke the feeling of soaring (or of falling, if you’re a pessimist) in the audience like no other image ever could. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is stunning and breath-taking in that very literal way of having stolen the wind right out of my lungs.
The walk itself, as Petit always delights in telling us, is completely illegal and planned in secret. This part of the story almost feels like a heist movie, between the planning and the recruitment of compatriots. But once Petit puts one foot to the wire, it becomes a work of art. Early morning commuters stop traffic to look up, look waaaaaaaaay up at these buildings newly erected, not yet a beloved part of the city’s skyline, and suddenly they’re injected with life and meaning.
Is this movie Zemeckis’ love letter to the twin towers? It’s quite a tribute, handled with love and respect. The movie may be uneven, and a little brainless, but it is without a doubt visionary, if only you dare not only to keep your eyes open, but to do what the wire walker must never do: to look down.
Anyone have a problem with heights? Has it stopped you watching certain movies before?