In a sense, two Hollywood films have been made that have been love letters to those lost on September 11. One was Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which was less about honoring the titular buildings and more about honoring the first responders. The other is Paul Greengrass’United 93, which is also about honoring the people who fought back. This film takes place nearly thirty years prior to 9/11, so it can’t be about the people directly. It can only be that metaphorically, but doing so through constant shots of the Twin Towers, letting the image of them represent it all.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception and Looper) stars as Philippe Petit, a French artist who worked as a street performer doing juggling, unicycling, magic and some acrobatics. He studies under a circus performer named Papa Rudy, played by Sir Ben Kingsley (Gandhi and Schindler’s List). Papa Rudy’s signature act is doing the tightrope. Philippe is so enchanted that he wants to be Papa Rudy’s apprentice and become a renowned, tightrope or wire-walker.
He lives in Paris in the mid-1970’s, but he learns that construction is almost complete on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. He gets the idea to stretch a thin wire between the roofs of the two buildings and walk across. The buildings are 110-stories high and he would be doing the walk without any safety gear, no harness and no net. He also wants to do it illegally without any permission and by essentially breaking into the buildings.
The middle act of this movie is in fact watching Philippe and his accomplices breaking into the World Trade Center. Because of the comedic nature, that middle act rolling all the way to end felt like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which in essence is how the documentary about Petit called Man on Wire (2008) also felt. It becomes a comical and quite entertaining, heist movie.
It of course all climaxes in a bold and thrilling sequence that regardless of your knowledge of how it ends conveys a vicarious feeling of acrophobia. The production design, the cinematography and CGI perfectly recreate being not only at the base level but also on the roof looking across the skyline from that vantage, as well as the terrifying, 100-story drop.
It’s also recommended that the movie be seen in the largest format possible like IMAX and in 3D. I’ve never been an advocate for 3D. I’ve always thought it a gimmick until I saw what filmmakers like Martin Scorsese could do with it as with Hugo (2011) in which Kingsley is also featured. Zemeckis can also be added to the list of directors who effectively use 3D to convey depth and distance.
What’s even better is that the movie is fun. It’s highly comical and funny. In fact, the comedy in the first third of this film is probably the best of any all year. Levitt is a large part of that. He is absolutely charming and passionate, and aided by a nifty supporting cast. He’s also crazy but that’s why you love him.
The thing that took me out the film was the comedy made out of the fact that Philippe was able to break into the World Trade Center and set things up so easily. It demonstrated the lax in security within the Twin Towers, given the bombing, robbery and ultimately their destruction. It wasn’t enough to take me out the film totally, but it was a thought that kept echoing in my head.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for perilous situations, some nudity, language, brief drug references.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.