In 1974, tightrope walker Philippe Petit performed a stunt that defied belief. He strung a wire between the twin towers in New York (illegally) and walked backwards and forwards across it eight times while an entranced audience of passers-by watched in stunned amazement. The ‘Coup,’ as Petit called it, has of course already been the subject of a film, James Marsh’s riveting documentary, Man On Wire (2009), but Petit only had a couple of still photographers with him. So this is Robert Zemeckis’s attempt to reconstruct the event.
We open with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) talking directly to camera. Gordon-Levitt is a charming performer (considerably more charming than Petit himself who was famously unfaithful to his long-suffering girlfriend, Annie, played here by Charlotte Le Bon the night after the Coup, a fact that the film makers choose to ignore). Indeed, the charm offensive may be what skewers the early sections of this, as a young Petit conceives his dream of walking between the towers (in a dentist’s waiting room, as it happens), enlists the help of circus stalwart, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) to teach him the secrets of wire walking – and mawkishly romances Annie, who, when we first meet her is a street performer, bashing out drippy ballads on an acoustic guitar. The tone here is too whimsical for what follows, too self consciously comic for comfort and at times it threatens to derail the film completely. Matters aren’t helped by one of the murkiest 3D prints I’ve ever seen, which sets the first half of the story in deep shadow.
The momentum is happily regained somewhat once Petit and his ramshackle bunch of accomplices actually set about trying to achieve their objective. This section is filmed like a heist movie, with the tension steadily rising as the team try to get everything in place for the walk.
The Coup itself is a hair raising, terrifying, vertigo-inducing nightmare. I sat there, desperately reminding myself that history has already assured us of the outcome of the exercise, but it was to no avail. I’m not particularly good with heights and watching Gordon-Levitt walk back and forth, kneel down and at one point lie down on that narrow steel cable must have taken several years off my life. If the rest of the film had been up to this standard, it would doubtless have been granted five stars much higher score.
As it is, that uncertain first half is hard to forgive, particularly when it’s coming from a director of Zemeckis’s stature. A warning though. If you genuinely suffer from vertigo, this really may not be the film for you.