Plot: See this, except Philippe Petit has been replaced by an American former child actor pretending to be French.
I was actually impressed with Joseph Gordon-Levitt here. At first, I wasn't sure if it was special effects or the work of stunt doubles, but apparently he really did perform his own French accent in this. Honestly, I'm not even sure I could tell whether somebody's fake accent was a bad one or not. To me, Gordon-Levitt's accent sounded fine. At the very least, it wasn't a distraction for me although you do have to wonder why they didn't, you know, just get a French guy to play Petit.
Gordon-Levitt also did some tightrope walking after training with Petit although I'm pretty sure Robert Zemeckis was using special effects trickery for the walk across the Twin Towers. I don't think Gordon-Levitt was really on the Twin Towers. Aside from developing skills to make him look like an actual tightrope walker, the time with Peti probably helped his performance. The most memorable thing about Man on Wire is Petit's infectious enthusiasm and vivaciousness, and Gordon-Levitt captured that wonderfully, forming this character who takes on the world with wide eyes and passion. As with the documentary, you really feel in love with Petit, as crazy as that son of a bitch is, and even though you already know the story, you're still on the edge of your seat as you root for him in this ridiculously crazy endeavor.
Speaking of being on the edge of your seat, Zemeckis really did everything he could to give this former-acrophobic a bad case of vertigo. The special effects in this are outstanding, and I can only imagine what it would have been like this to catch this in 3D in the theater. You really feel like you're up there with Petit. Zemeckis shows off a bit, his camera soaring around Gordon-Levitt and over him and scaling walls and plummeting. Petit ends up on that tightrope at right around the 1 hour and 30 minute mark, and for the next 25 minutes or so, you're sitting there with your stomach in your throat and your eyes glued to the screen.
The final fourth of the movie is exhilarating, but it's not like the rest of the movie isn't worth watching. Zemeckis gives the exposition of Petit's story some flair with some of his characteristic perspective shots. What he did with feathers in Forest Gump or other things in those creepy animated movies he won't stop making, he does with hard candy flying through the air, the flight of an arrow, or a shot from the reverse side of a piece of paper Petit is drawing on. Along with some splashes of color in a black and white world--stop lights, brown shoes, a checkered pattern of a restaurant patio, obviously a wire--it gives the non-WTC scenes an effervescence. Add in a French-language version of "These Boots Are Made for Walking" and a pretty cover of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," and you've got some lovely set-up. I also loved the performance of chameleon Ben Kingsley. He plays Petit's mentor and has some of the funniest and most poignant lines. Sure, some of the dialogue in this is a little ponderous, and there are some schmaltzy moments, but Zemeckis sure knows how to dazzle.
You could argue that this entire movie is superfluous following the release of the excellent documentary. We know how the story goes, and that does take away a little of the suspense. The movie probably isn't necessary as a story, but this does two things better than the documentary. First, it gives you that experience. Again, I can't describe well enough how good the effects are here and the magic that Zemeckis works to put you high above Manhattan with Petit, feeling not only this thrill but that sense of accomplishment and that realization of a crazy dream. Second, it's a wonderful tribute to the Twin Towers. There are a couple moments in this that brought tears to my eyes, including a final bit of narration from Gordon-Levitt and an absolutely perfect final shot.