Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
by Jon Cvack
This movie only played in a few theaters around Los Angeles, and was bumped out before I even had to opportunity to check it out, which was surprising for a Zemeckis film. I figured this thing had to be pretty bad if they were willing to so quickly pull a star studded, expensive, A-list director’s film from the theaters. I anticipated an effects heavy CGI fest, with horrible VFX to boot. I’m not sure if it was an example of low expectations leading to handicapped satisfaction, but while not as good as the documentary “Man on Wire”, the movie was pretty good.
I haven’t seen the documentary in years. Aside from scaling the wire, the thing I remember most was his life afterwards; how Philippe Petit became a pre-Madonna, dumping his girlfriend, and engaging in orgies and a selfish life of expression. He was a bit of an asshole and now that I think about it I really didn’t like him after discovering he became a massive narcissist, dumping the girl who got him where he went. When I saw the film was rated PG, I wondered how Zemeckis would pull all this off.
Philippe is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and although it takes a few minutes to buy the accent, it quickly faded, where between the haircut and character type he fit right in. This is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best role to date. Zemeckis taps into Philippe’s narcissism perfectly, as he unleashes paroxysms when things fail to go his way. He talks about art, and how great and important a project it is, when really it’s all about him. I do think Philippe was interested in making great art, and I actually think this is one of the finest demonstrations of how performance art can compete with any other form. I also think he knew it would get him a lot of attention and he was charismatic enough to exploit people to help him.
The coolest thing to see narrative-wise is the sheer absurdity of how they pulled this off, with recruiting the office worker, the electronics salesman, and getting through security time and time again. It paints a portrait of a pre-9/11 world where paranoia was directed at Russia, rather than your own countrymen. The plan’s simplicity almost works against the story. It seems all too easy, near unbelievable, and that’s not to cast doubt. I’m just blown away by how little went wrong.
The wire sequence is something I wish I saw in the movie theaters, and 3D especially. I remember hearing about people getting nauseated, having to leave the theater. My home television just didn’t capture it. Still it was great, and at no point pulled me out for looking unrealistic. I have trouble grasping the ability to slake the fear, and avoid thinking about it any cost. It’s the classic case of Top Gun’s famous “If you think, you’re dead”, and it’s fascinating how the same logic could apply to so many different high adrenaline endeavors. I hear the same about rock climbing, mountain biking, motorcycling, etc. It’s all the same. Still, walking on an inch or two of wire across two of the tallest buildings in the world at that point, I’m not sure how he remained calm. And that’s the art project. It’s not just watching someone do it, but that there is someone who could do it. I can’t even approach a ledge without going flat on my stomach, taking only the slightest peek down without having my stomach drop. Gordon-Levitt made me believe he was doing it, showing an equal amount of joy, satisfaction, and quenched fear as he walked the line, again and again.
As for the ending and the despicable life Philippe lived after, Zemeckis never gives us any of that. Instead he shot some sequence about his girlfriend Annie Allix (Charlotte le Bon) wanting to go and find her own art. Given what this movie was about, I wasn’t too upset, and I’m sure if anyone cares enough they’ll go and check out the documentary. Still, there’s something that sits wrong with me knowing that Philippe Petit now has such a polished memorial, when in fact he was a sociopath who used people. Some say you have to remove the art from the artist. When it comes to that which required others to help and who he abandoned, it’s a bit difficult to do that. So where's the line?
BELOW: Annie confronts Philippe about his raging narcissism
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.