Director Robert Zemeckis’s newest movie is relatively simple, but wonderfully exhilarating; it has the power to make your palms sweat and catch your heart in your throat. Zemeckis is a whiz at technologically advanced movies that tell ever-so-slightly dark stories, but with a bright style and a warm heart. In re-creating this astounding feat of tightrope walking, his camera follows effortlessly, giving us a smooth, 360-degree view of the abyss around Philippe Petit’s wire. We are with him on every step of his journey.
In the early 1970s, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a street performer in Paris, juggling things while balancing on tightropes. While at the dentist, he finds a magazine that shows the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City, and he suddenly envisions walking a tightrope between the twin towers, about 1350 feet above the ground. He trains with the master Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and enlists the help of musician Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and other friends. Spending many months planning and preparing, the crew runs into dozens of little setbacks that threaten to derail the entire walk, but Philippe is determined to see his dream realized, at nearly any cost.
Some have complained that the 123-minute movie is a slow starter, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feverish, dedicated performance energizes the first half. (It helps if viewers can appreciate anticipation as well as payoff.). He narrates from the dizzying top of the Statue of Liberty, showing off a convincing French accent (and snippets of actual French) as well as his own freshly-learned tightrope-walking and juggling skills. The movie respectfully and quietly acknowledges the beauty of the twin towers (without ever mentioning 9/11), re-creating them in a way that makes them seem real, and there, again.