MAN ON WIRE
Director: James Marsh
Producer: Simon Chinn
United Kingdom, 2007, 90 min.
*August 7, 1974--A young Frenchman named Philippe Petit steps out on a wire suspended 1,350 feet above ground between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He dances on the wire with no safety net for almost an hour, crossing it eight times before he is arrested for what becomes known as “the artistic crime of the century.”
In the months leading up to his clandestine walk, Petit assembles a team of accomplices to plan and execute his “coup” in the most intricate detail. How do they pull it off? Moving between New York and his secret training camp in rural France, Petit and his team plot every detail. Like a band of professional bank robbers, the tasks they face seem virtually insurmountable. But Petit is a man possessed; nothing will thwart his mission to conquer the world’s tallest buildings.
Unfolding like a delicious heist film, Man on Wire brings Petit’s extraordinary adventure back to life with visceral immediacy ripened with post-9/11 nostalgia. In candid interviews, Petit and all the key participants relish this chance to tell their story. Buoyed with eye-catching archival footage, clever dramatizations, and delightful visual effects, filmmaker James Marsh, like his daring subject, pulls off an astonishing coup.
*Summary by David Courier, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
A wonderful documentary on an interesting subject, Man on Wire is the rare documentary I could see multiple times because it as entertaining as any fictional film. Through structure and creative filmmaking, the filmmakers really bring to life the story of how a man walked a wire between the World Trade Center Towers in New York. There is a sense of whimsy to the story, a feeling as if the entire production team was French. I don’t quite now how to explain that feeling; its as if every stereotype we have of French culture, the accordion music, the odd sense of humor, the breeziness, is used to make this story feel more like its very French wire walker. Even though the director is English, I still get that “French” feeling, if that makes any bit of sense.
The film chronicles the heist-like planning of the Towers-walk, interspersed with segments chronicling the background of Philippe Petit, the wire walker. There are some wonderful sequences that re-create moments in his youth, such as when he visited the dentist. The scene is filmed in a very artistic way, in black and white, with the dentist’s shadow against the wall, the sound of a drill echoing through the speakers. It is hilarious, an amusing way in which to show a real event. The re-stage scenes of the Twin Towers invasion are filmed in much the same manner, humorous feints around sleeping guards, with lithe shadows tip-toeing upstairs. Surrounding all this re-staged material are traditional talking-heads interviews and photography and video of Petit’s walks. An early walk between the towers of Notre Dame is set to beautiful music that really gets the audience into Petit’s mindset. We begin to see this wire walking not as dangerous exhibitionism, but as an expression of sentient art. Petit’s delicate act is how he paints.
The story builds to the Twin Towers crossing and the true story is more fantastical than anything a writer could come up with. After eluding the guards on many floors in both towers, Petit and his accomplices had to shoot the wire from one building to another with a bow-and-arrow. In the dark. Jean-Louis, Petit’s friend and the mastermind of this whole operation, shoots the arrow to Petit, but Petit can’t see it in the dark. So, in order to feel the wire on his skin, the crazy Frenchman strips naked and walks slowly along the roof’s edge. Eventually he does find the wire and they string it up. The men on the roof had a video camera with them so we get to experience the moment when Petit first steps out on the wire. The video footage is extremely effective in communicating the sheer height and danger of this stunt. I’m not afraid of heights, but seeing so many men walking so close to the edge, then watching Petit walk out onto a wire with no safety device, got my heart racing. The music becomes delicate and beautiful as Petit starts his routine, and we even get to see the event from the ground looking up. From that angle, we see Petit lying on the wire, but we can’t see the wire. It is quite amazing to see a man lying on his back on what appears to be thin air. It is no simple crossing either. Petit is on that wire for about 45 minutes and crosses back and forth about 8 times. In a touching moment, Jean-Louis later describes Petit’s dance and begins to cry. You can just see all the stress and fear come rolling off this man’s shoulders in great big shudders. It is a tremendous scene. Near the end of his walk, the camera pans left and the music changes to its French-accordion music again precisely at the moment we see the police standing at the edge of the building, ready to arrest Petit. When they finally get him off that wire, the complaint in the police report read simply, “Man on Wire.”
I wish the film had gone into greater detail about Petit’s personal life. We understand his artistic desires, his goals, and we meet his girlfriend who is there with him through all this. But then, Petit tells the story about how he completed his Twin Tower walk, and as soon as he was released from jail, he slept with an ardent fan he met in the streets. It is a funny re-stage Clockwork Orange-ish sex scene, but it brought up some emotional issues that were smoothed over. Wasn’t Petit still dating his girlfriend at the time? There is an interview with her that says they just went their separate ways. But I wanted more of an explanation. Is that how Petit was, a man focused on the goal, and damned be the human beings around him? I think the film missed an opportunity to let us a little further into the man. Or maybe it was just an example of the French stereotype of free love, open relationships, and accepted affairs.Throughout the whole film, I feared there was going to be some ham-handed tribute to the events on that transpired on September 11th, 2001. I was relieved that that whole topic was completely avoided in this documentary. At first, just seeing the images of the Twin Towers is jarring. The filmmakers incorporate a lot of footage of the Towers being built, and it is fascinating to see the work and construction prowess needed to complete these gigantic buildings. By the time the wire walk between the Towers occurs, I was not watching the film with the shadow of 9/11 hanging over it. Maybe that is the greatest gift of the film that it lets us forget for awhile. That it depicts an act of grace and art happening atop structures better remembered for death and destruction. It was only right near the end, when we get a close-up of Petit writing his name and the date on a beam at the top of the World Trade Centers, that I suddenly thought about how that beam was probably lost forever. I can’t express how wonderful a decision, and how unusual a decision is was to omit any mention of 9/11. You would think any filmmaker couldn’t resist doing some inappropriate tribute or commentary, but these guys thankfully resisted. This is a portrait of a strange little artist who achieved one hell of a goal that can never be re-created. The film ends on Petit back home in France, a much older man, walking on a wire out of the frame, his head held high.