The lure for Bob Zemeckis to buy the rights ten years ago to Philippe Petit’s 2002 memoir “To Reach the Clouds: My Highwire Walk Between the Twin Towers” was achieving that key sequence on the big screen, with all the vertiginous bells and whistles that he could command. He mixed and matched every VFX trick he’s learned to date, Zemeckis said at the NYFF press conference. While he appreciated the re-enacted thrills of James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” he pointed out, “there is no moving picture film of the walk.”
You can count on the Oscar-winning director of “Forrest Gump,” who was also nominated for “Back to the Future,” to milk the 24-year-old Petit’s 110-stories high 140-foot balancing act in 1974 from every close-up and angle; Zemeckis puts us right there. Even if we know Petit survives: after all, he’s telling the story from the top of the Statue of Liberty, no less, against CG footage of the New York skyline, complete with Twin Towers. And Zemeckis captures the poetry and serenity of the focused wire walker–until he throws various impediments in his way. At the New York Film Festival after party at Tavern on the Green, the man of the hour, Philippe Petit, told me that Zemeckis evoked the feeling he had while scampering for 45 minutes across that cable.
In IMAX 3D, the movie hits the sweet spot the Hollywood studios chase after these days: an event spectacular that you have to see on the big screen. “Everest” and the upcoming extreme sports flick (a remake in title only) “Point Break” are in the same genre. The idea is to immerse you in thrilling places that you could never possibly go. As it happens both Zemeckis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt visited the World Trade Center observation deck–the latter in the summer after his Freshman year at Columbia, in 2001.
Ahead of the climax, Zemeckis has the acrobatic Gordon-Levitt dodging cops and skipping along the edge of the North Tower, where he drops various things to remind us of the depths of the void below. The writer-director also understands the appeal of the rebel subversive artist-performer (or “twisted anti-social malcontent”) who likes nothing better than breaking and entering and stringing an illegal cable between the towers of Notre Dame–or the World Trade Center. “All artists are anarchists in some way,” Zemeckis said, quoting a line in the movie he agrees with. “Artists are supposed to present a different angle on everything.”
He climbed walls in “Inception,” sped on a bike in “Premium Rush” and can imitate Fred Astaire, so athletic Gordon-Levitt did perform some of the walks himself. (He also has a wire walker stunt double.) He trained one-on-one with Petit, who promised he’d be walking a wire alone within eight days. And so he was. “It’s a fun if painful occupation/art form,” he told the NYFF press. The filmmakers shot the sequence on a soundstage with a cable strung between two-story replicas of the top of the towers, surrounded by green screen. Much of the scene is digitally painted.
For a movie so impeccably made I have one beef: why the obvious wig? (According to one producer, Zemeckis insisted on replicating Petit’s haircut.) Zemeckis dispatches the language problem efficiently if improbably: the French speakers are supposedly accommodating Petit’s desire to “practice” his English. As for the pesky accent that seemed so distracting in the trailer, Gordon-Levitt, 34, a fluent French speaker, practiced Parisian inflections as his French co-stars acted as language police on set. He sprinkles some plausible French phrases throughout and makes a believable Petit, who was much younger when he performed the stunt soon before his 25th birthday.
Tom Rothman, who produced the project at TriStar before taking over as Sony Motion Picture chairman, has delivered the studio a mainstream commercial hit with wide appeal. And at a remarkably low net budget: $35 million, thanks to double rebates in Montreal, which doubled for New York and Paris. The movie (currently at 67% fresh on the Tomatometer) should score some Oscar nods, most likely on the technical side.