In 1974, Philippe Petit and a small group of fellow conspirators strung a wire between the newly completed towers of the World Trade Center and, to the consternation of New Yorkers below, the French performance artist walked crossed the chasm between them. There is a unique pleasure in being invited to partake in a successful, not strictly legal caper and Robert Zemeckis was probably mining this common craving for inclusiveness by having Petit talk directly to us throughout this gripping and at times head-spinning movie. Petit is standing atop the Statue of Liberty, from which vantage point we have an uninterrupted view of the glistening twin peaks.
The device of joining him in his lofty sanctuary is at first disarming, for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is less than subtle and at times pushy – possibly because he was too focused on what comes across as a very dodgy French accent. But as the event unfolds, with Petit filling us in on his background as a magician and busker on the streets of Paris, we become more tightly knitted into the planning and the execution of the deed. Illuminating flashbacks include Ben Kingsley hamming it up as Papa Rudy, the circus legend who was Petit’s mentor, and the occasions on which he met his closest allies – Annie (an insipid Charlotte Le Bon) and the photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), but they are scenes that feel cartoonish when contrasted with the momentum of Petit’s ‘coup’. However, for all of Petit’s bravado and obsessiveness, slowly but overwhelmingly the centre of attention turns on the buildings themselves. Their recreation is a brilliant piece of CGI and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography escorts us through their loading docks, foyers, lift-wells and up to the breathtaking top floor in what is a visual eulogy for lost grandeur. Zemeckis has apparently taken some liberties with the facts in his telling of the story, but to carp about them is to lose sight of what was an extraordinary feat. As we grow increasingly blasé about others’ achievements, Zemeckis’s film lauds heroic individualism.