Man on Wire

Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

(Magnolia) Philippe Petit, Jean-Francois Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, David Forman, Alan Welner, Mark Lewis, N. Barry Greenhouse, Jim Moore. Directed by James Marsh

Our human nature is to expand the boundaries of our perceptions, whether the physical borders of our environment or the emotional or mental limits of our capabilities. We don’t always know why we must push these limits, but to do so is the heart of our human nature.

Philippe Petit is a French wire-walker and performer. He had run away from home at age 15 to join his own private circus, a street performer expert in magic tricks, juggling and wire walking, for which he was self-taught. After awhile, he grew bored with the feats. It seemed almost ugly to him, and he yearned to transform wire walking into an art.

To be honest, although it isn’t spoken outwardly in the film, he also seems to have a flair for the spotlight. He decided to perform some daring feats of wire-walking whose legality was a bit murky, starting with a wire walk between the twin spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and one on two towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It was the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that captured his imagination however, and on the morning of August 7, 1974 he stepped out onto a special wire he and his team had managed to stretch unnoticed between the north and south towers and made history.

The feat, which Time magazine called “the artistic crime of the century,” was one of the most defining moments of the Twin Towers until 9-11. It captured the imagination of the entire world. This documentary chronicles the planning that went into it, the execution of the event and its aftermath.

The Oscar winner for Best Documentary Film, Man on Wire has some of the best interviews I’ve seen in a documentary. The personalities of the subjects are nicely captured, and everyone’s role is very clear. Petit in particular is a complex man, and many of the aspects of his personality are represented here. His relationship with Allix is important at the time of the walk, but dissolves as soon as the event is concluded.

The planning that went into the event was meticulous in terms of the mechanics of the walk; getting the equipment up the tower to the roof was less so. Still, it’s fascinating to watch and the re-enactments of the event, the descriptions of how close they came to being detected and their scheme stopped before it started is riveting.

Inevitably, the centerpiece is Petit. When explanations are demanded, Petit shrugs them off. “The beauty of it,” he confesses, “is that there is no why.” He did it just to do it. It is the kind of love that is madness, a joy of life in doing the reckless, the non-conformist’s mazurka. The expression on his face as he dances on the wire between the two towers is all the explanation you will ever need, but it cannot be put into words adequately.

The World Trade Center now inhabits an entirely different locale in our psyche, and wisely director Marsh doesn’t explore that aspect of it. Certainly, the destruction of the towers must have had an impact on Petit but it is the one question that goes unasked; it is much better that way, because the only way for this film to work is to put the Towers where they were that August day; fresh, new, a symbol of a hopeful future. The image of the craters at Ground Zero remains in a different compartment of our memories. In many ways that’s a gift.

This is a movie that has all sorts of emotional resonances; with the daredevil that is Petit, with the urge to do something memorable in all of us, and with the sadness of the loss of something so grand and so meaningful in our lives. Man on Wire can be viewed not only as a documentary of how the deed was done, but also of an allegory of the tightrope we all walk.

WHY RENT THIS: The interviews are compelling and give us a wonderful sense of who the subjects are and their role in the events depicted. While ostensibly a documentary about how the deed was done, it lets us examine the event from a different perspective, one born of our experiences and of the history that followed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Perhaps you don’t like documentaries.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language and drug/alcohol use but nothing here that would put off parents from showing this to their children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The phrase “Man on Wire” is the description of the incident as logged on the police report by the NYPD after the event.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several documentary features but none really spectacular.


TOMORROW: The Proposal


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