Movies take us where nothing else can – it’s why we love them. Master and Commander (2003) put us on a 3-masted ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and The Ten Commandments (1956) parted the Red Sea. When I saw James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire (2008), I wrote that Philippe Petit’s “coup,” when he illegally walked between the unfinished twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974, was “itself a transcendent work of art.” Robert Zemeckis’ film dramatizes that feat, placing us on the wire alongside (as well as above and below) Petit. It’s not art, but it’s damn near transcendent.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a strange stand-in for Petit at first, but he grows on you. And Zemeckis, with co-screenwriter Christopher Browne, wisely recognizes that the heist, the details of how the wire was installed, is not the point of the story. Petit insists throughout his book and the documentary that the walk itself is beautiful. Zemeckis and his team pay full homage to that act, and they’ll make you believe it too.
I wrote in 2009, in the grip of my darkest depression:
“It’s difficult to express the emotional impact that watching a man walking (dancing!) on such a wire might ultimately deliver. I wonder if others will have the same reaction I did. This man is in defiance of society’s laws and customs, and he is in defiance of death. At the same time, his actions are a celebration of life.”
Zemeckis’ postscript makes it clear that his movie is also a love letter to New York City, and the towers that are no more.