4.5 stars. Rated PG, for minor profanity and chaste nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.2.15
And I worried that this film might be dull.
The saga of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, in the summer of 1974? OK, granted; it was an amazingly audacious stunt, and an impressive display of awesome dexterity and physical prowess. But how in the world could that sustain a two-hour film?
Director Robert Zemeckis’ exhilarating depiction of Petit’s bold feat is almost as exciting as the historic walk itself. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking, crystal-clear camera angles blend seamlessly with Kevin Baillie’s visual effects, to put us “right there” at virtually impossible moments.
I haven’t been this dazzled by a film’s visuals since Claudio Miranda’s Academy Award-winning work in 2012’s Life of Pi.
Wolski and Baillie also make excellent use of their 3D effects, for which this film clearly was designed. The dimensionality is integrated smoothly, often to enhance the sense of vertigo — particularly during the third act — as we peer down from the top of one of the towers. 3D cinematography hasn’t been used this well since Martin Scorsese’s marvelous handling of the technology, in 2011’s Hugo.
Inevitably, whether at a circus or elsewhere, we always watch wire-walkers from below; it simply isn’t possible to do otherwise. But that’s precisely what Zemeckis and his team pull off: We often experience Petit’s work from above — disorienting enough — or even as if we’re standing alongside him.
Our rational minds insist that what we’re watching couldn’t possibly be real, just as our hearts suggest otherwise.
Which is a reaction that Petit, an impudent showman through and through, would both understand and encourage.
The riveting screenplay — by Zemeckis and co-scripter Christopher Browne, based on Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds — also contributes greatly to this film’s enthralling allure. Zemeckis and Browne don’t treat this as “mere” build-up to a fleeting display of athletic grace; it is, instead, one of cinema’s ultimate, clenched-knuckle heist flicks, told with the panache and verbal flamboyance of a circus barker.