Man in Red Bandana


Welles Remy Crowther believed we are all connected as one human family and we are here to care for and help each other.

(2017) Documentary (Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (voice), Barack Obama, Jefferson “Jeff’ Crowther, Alison Crowther, John Howells, Welles Remy Crowther (voice), Ling Young, Harry Wanamaker, Judy Wein (voice), Honor Crowther-Fagan, Kelly Reyher, Gerry Sussman, Richard Fern, Chris Varman, Ed Nicholls, Eric Lipton, Ron DiFrancesco, Donna Spera, Paige Crowther-Charbonneau. Directed by Matthew J. Weiss

 

There are heroes that we know about, those who are rightly praised and their stories oft-repeated. Then there are the heroes we don’t know about, people who should be household names but aren’t but still in all fit the definition of heroism to a “T.”

Welles Remy Crowther is one such. He is one of thousands who perished on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center – in his case, in the South Tower. What he did in his last hour of life has been enough to grab the attention of President Barack Obama, who recounted the young 24-year-old equities trader’s story at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in New York City and has already been the subject of a documentary short on ESPN.

Crowther was the son of Jefferson “Jeff” Welles, a volunteer firefighter and his mother Alison and grew up in Nyack, New York. He was athletic, lettering in ice hockey and lacrosse in high school and playing varsity lacrosse at Boston College. After graduating, he got a job at Sandler, O’Neil and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. However, as he confessed to his father a month before the attack, he was considering a career change, one that he actually made – after he died.

After the United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower, Crowther made his way down to the 78th floor where the plane had impacted. He found several survivors there, all frozen in fear and panicking in the dense smoke and flames. He was able to discover the one clear stairway left and guided those survivors to it, making three separate trips up and down the stairs. He was in the lobby, within sight of safety, preparing to return to the 78th with firefighters who had the rescue equipment needed to bring those who were unable to make the stairs on their own when the tower collapsed. His body wouldn’t be recovered until the following March.

He’d left a haunting voice mail message for his mother before the second plane hit, assuring her that he was all right. After that, he called his college roommate John Howells to let him know he was going to get out but the young man’s nature was not to abandon those who needed help. He always carried a red bandana – a gift from his firefighter dad whom he idolized and who carried an identical blue one – and he wore it on this occasion to filter out the smoke and dust. He took it off only briefly but survivor Ling Young, one of the ten (at least) that is positively known that he rescued that day, clearly saw his face and would later identify him to his mother but we’ll get to that more in a moment.

His family was understandably devastated; when his funeral was held, there had been no remains recovered to that point so an empty casket was buried. This was hard for his mother Alison to accept so she went on a quest, pouring over news photos, print articles and documentaries, trying to find some mention, anything, that would tell her something about how her son died. Years later, the New York Times did a comprehensive article on the timeline of the disaster, organizing it by towers and by groups of floors. Reporter Eric Lipton was assigned the area where Welles had been and noticed that several survivors had reported being guided out by a man in a red bandana. Alison knew immediately that this was her son. She contacted survivors Judy Wein and Young and both of them were able to identify Welles from pictures that Alison had.

The documentary was directed by first-time filmmaker Matthew Weiss, who had heard Welles’ story from Jeff Welles, who had worked in the bank Weiss uses. Weiss’ inexperience shows in a number of places; the movie feels padded a bit towards the end as all the monuments and tributes to Welles are listed and shown. The re-enactments are a bit sketchy as well. Paltrow’s narration is surprisingly bloodless; she has always been a very emotional actress so I was surprised when the narration sounded  a bit too much like she was reading it without caring much about the words.

But Weiss also took an inspiring story and brought it to life. The animated graphics he used to explain how the planes impacted the building, why the impacts brought the Towers down and where Welles Crowther went in that last hour are informative albeit simple. It’s a shame Weiss didn’t have the budget for more elaborate animation but on the flip side they may have detracted from the film. Simple is generally better even when it comes to films.

The interviews with Welles’ family are understandably emotional. You get a real sense of the devastating effect his passing had on them, on his friends and on the community at large. Clearly he was well-liked by just about everyone who knew him; high school hockey teammates (one tells of a pass that Welles made to him so that he could get the first goal of his varsity career and afterwards retrieved the puck so he could keep it), and work colleagues. He didn’t seem to have a steady girlfriend however; at least none were interviewed here although being a handsome and likable young man I’m sure he had his share of girlfriends. The movie doesn’t give too much of a sense of Welles’ personal life beyond his sports achievements and his love for firefighting and desire to become one.

One of the reasons Welles’ story isn’t better known may be that he “only” saved ten lives; the media loves big numbers over smaller ones after all but at the end of the day he gave his life for people he didn’t know at the cost of his own and despite the fact that he could have continued down the stairs with the first group and easily have saved himself. That he chose to return at least three more times is mind-blowing. I can’t think of anything more heroic than that. For his heroism he was the first man to be honored as a firefighter in the Fire Department of New York City posthumously and in several memorials to fallen first responded he is listed as a firefighter there. What is particularly moving about this is that when his father was cleaning out Welles’ apartment sometime later, he discovered applications for the FDNY that Welles had partially filled out. This was the career change he had discussed with his dad before he died.

There is a great deal of 9/11 footage here of the planes hitting the building and the towers collapsing, some of it unseen before now. Even though sixteen years have passed as of this writing since that terrible day, for some the images may just be too traumatic and trigger feelings that may bring back a whole lot of pain. Those who have difficulties still in watching 9/11 footage or seeing images from that day should be advised that this may be difficult for them to handle.

This is far from perfect filmmaking and some critics are really taking Weiss to task for not producing something more polished. I can understand their gripes but they are at the end of the day, it is the story and not always how it’s told that is important. This is a story that every American should know; hell, this is a story that every human should know. Welles Remy Crowther represents the best in all of us. He is a true hero in an era where they are desperately needed.

REASONS TO GO: The film is extremely inspiring. The graphics showing how the planes brought the tower down were informative. The background music is effective without being overpowering. You feel like you really get to know the parents. The survivor stories are extremely detailed.
REASONS TO STAY: This may still be too traumatic for those who are especially emotional about the fall of the Twin Towers.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly adult and there are some disturbing images and re-enactments of 9/11.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The charitable trust founded by the Crowthers to honor their son can be reached (and donated to at) here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 9/11: The Falling Man
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Mummy (2017)

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The Walk


The ultimate vertigo.

The ultimate vertigo.

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Mark Camacho, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Sergio Di Zio, Daniel Harroch, Soleyman Pierini, Patrick Baby, Marie Turgeon, Joel Rinzler, Inka Malovic, Larry Day, Catherine Lemieux. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Some dreams are bigger than others. Most of our dreams are relatively small – taking the family to Walt Disney World, or eating a corn dog on Coney Island. They are infinitely doable without a whole lot of planning. Some, however, can be bigger than all the sky.

Take Frenchman Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), for example. As a young boy, he grew fascinated by the circus performers who came to his small village. After learning the basics of walking on wires on his own, he convinced Papa Rudy (Kingsley), patriarch of the White Devils high wire act, to train him, often paying cash for each of Papa Rudy’s secrets. But even becoming a street performer in Paris after being thrown out of his house by his tyrannical father (Baby) isn’t enough, although he meets Annie (Le Bon), a fellow street performer who becomes his girlfriend.

No, he has his eye on bigger things. After walking between spires at the Notre Dame Cathedral, he still feels like there’s something else out there. While on a visit to the dentist’s office, he opens a magazine and sees the plans for the World Trade Center twin towers. He immediately knows what his destiny is to be – to walk on a wire strung between the two towers.

This actual event, chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, took place in 1974 and required years of planning. We see Petit assemble his accomplices (for the act which they called “The Coup”) including photographer Jean-Louis (Sibony) and inside man Barry Greenhouse (Steve) as well as ex-pat J.P (Dale) and shy Frenchman Jeff (Domboy), and of course, Annie.

Just getting the equipment up to the top of the towers is dangerous; it’s not just getting the steel cable up there, it has to be brought from one tower to the other and affixed, then tightened all of which requires specialized equipment as well as some brilliant improvisation – the conspirators get the cable across by shooting an arrow attached to fishing wire, then attaching the fishing wire to a rope and pulling it across, then that rope to a larger rope and finally the steel cable. They also string a wire across so they can communicate without using walkie talkies which could theoretically be intercepted by authorities.

Petit would cross back and forth across the wire for 45 minutes, making eight traverses between towers. His feat made him a bit of a folk hero; he was arrested but not thrown in jail; instead he was required to perform community service which included putting a show on for children in Central Park. Petit would become a resident of New York City (which he is to this day).

Zemeckis wanted to put his audience on the high wire with Petit and in this he mainly succeeds; there are a few CGI shots that look like CGI shots but for the most part your stomach will be lurching and your insides tingling with fear, especially if you have any sort of fear of heights. While I saw the film in standard format, I understand that IMAX and 3D presentations are absolutely jaw-dropping if you can still find the film in those formats.

Gordon-Levitt affects a French accent which is at times a touch over-the-top but otherwise captures the arrogance and single-mindedness of Petit nicely; he also has the athleticism and grace of the French performer. Gordon-Levitt inhabits this role as much as he has any other in his career and this is likely to be one of his signature performances. I’m not sure what his Oscar chances are – I suspect he’ll be on the bubble – but there certainly are going to be those at the Academy who will take notice. He gets some fine support from Le Bon and Sibony, as well as Kingsley in a small but crucial role.

Gordon-Levitt also narrates the movie, sometimes in voiceovers but also jauntily perched in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France which is certainly not a coincidence that Zemeckis put him there. It contributes to the light and airy feel of the film, a delectable confection rather than a heavy-handed entree.

Of course, it’s difficult to view the Twin Towers – excellently re-created here down to the last rivet – without thinking about their fate. There is a moment at the film’s conclusion where it appears one of the towers is shaking as the movie fades to black but if I wasn’t imagining things that’s really the only overt mention of 9-11 in the movie. Zemeckis wisely allows it to remain in the back of our minds, knowing that we won’t be able to prevent thinking about it. He doesn’t try to and in that sense, he makes a more lasting tribute in the film itself which celebrates a good thing that happened there, something that those who witnessed it will never forget. In that sense, this is a fitting memorial to a pair of buildings that will be forever linked to the acts of lunatics that took more than two thousand lives; even if that was to be the destiny of the World Trade Center, it was still something else and something more once upon a time and it is high time that we remember that about them as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vertigo-inducing. Solid performances throughout. Clever narrative devices.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too vertigo-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES: Situation of peril, brief nudity, drug use, some historical smoking and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kingsley and Dale appeared in Iron Man 3.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man On Wire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: India’s Daughter

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Thomas Horn tells Sandra Bullock he's old enough to take a bath by himself; she's skeptical on that score.

(2011) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen McKinley Anderson, Hazelle Goodman, Adrian Martinez, Brooke Bloom, Stephanie Kutzuba. Directed by Stephen Daldry

 

Grief is an emotion we all must deal with at some point, but sometimes we must deal with it too soon. For the families who lost loved ones in 9-11, how does one explain to a child that a person flew a plane full of gasoline into a tower full of people and because of that their mommy or daddy are never coming home again? How does one cope with having to explain that while dealing with their own grief?

Oskar Schell (Horn) has a particularly close relationship with his dad Thomas (Hanks). Dad often sends Oskar on what he calls Reconnaissance Expeditions, kind of an elaborate scavenger hunt.  His dad may be a jeweler by trade but he’s a dreamer by nature – he tells his son that there once was a sixth borough of New York City that floated away years and years and years ago, never to return. His son believes him, just as he believes his Dad implicitly when he tells him that Central Park was once part of that fabled sixth borough.

Then Dad goes to a meeting one bright beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001 on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. He is still in there when the towers come down, molecules in the sky floating placidly in the dust and the debris. Oskar’s mom Linda (Bullock) and he must bury an empty casket since no body could be recovered; this upsets Oskar very much, so much so that he refuses to get dressed for the funeral (he attends in PJs and bathrobe), refuses to sit graveside (he remains in the limo with his grandmother (Caldwell).

A year after Oskar is still very much in pain. He is a brilliant kid with a logical and ordered mind; he can’t wrap his head around the “why” of 9-11. Nothing makes sense. Then, while rooting around in his dad’s things, he accidentally knocks over a vase which shatters, revealing a key in a small envelope with only the name “Black” neatly written on the envelope to give a clue as to where the key fits.

And as it’s a key and there must be a lock that it belongs to. Moreover, Oskar knowing his Dad’s penchants for subtle clues, believes that this is a quest he must undertake to hold onto his dad for just a little bit longer, the final words of the father to his son. Oskar will find the lock if it takes him the rest of his life.

He begins visiting everyone in the New York City phone book with the last name Black. There are 462 of them in the five boroughs and Oskar believes one of them has the lock that the key belongs to. They must. They have to. Otherwise the universe is truly a meaningless collision of random events and there is nothing ordered, nothing logical, just random chance.

Aiding him on his quest is the mute Renter (von Sydow) who is a boarder in his grandmother’s apartment. He is an old, sage gentlemen who seems to have demons of his own, but no voice. It isn’t ever clear if he can speak and chooses not to, but he does write notes and helpfully has the words “yes” and “no” inked on the palms of his hands.

His journey will take him throughout the five boroughs  and into a series of lives, some sweet and kindly, others not so much. His quest to keep his dad with him a little longer may well be the means in which Oskar will find a way back into living his own life.

Do bring a lot of tissue paper because you’re going to need it. Some of this is really hard to watch as you see a little boy’s pain, pain that he can’t even begin to cope with and his powerless mother taking the brunt of his rage because he has no other way to deal with this enormous loss. It’s truly heartbreaking.

However if you’re planning on seeing a Hanks-Bullock star-fest, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hanks only appears in flashbacks, while Bullock is a kind of just there until the last reel when she delivers some of her best work since The Blind Side. You’re mostly going to get Horn and that’s a good and bad thing.

Horn is making his feature debut. He has some talent – he has some very emotional scenes and this role asks – no, demands – a great deal from him. In a way, I think it asks too much. He must carry the movie on his frail shoulders and for much of it he does, but there are times when it feels as if he’s acting and a role like this calls for feeling it and feeling it deep. Accomplished actors would have a hard time with that and Horn does a pretty good job all things considered. You really can’t ask more of a young actor than what Horn gives here.

Keep in mind that the role is of a child dealing with something adults generally have a hard time with. Oskar lashes out, develops quirks that may be infuriating at times – and to top it all off he’s kind of an insufferable know-it-all who isn’t very patient with people who can’t or won’t keep up with him. He isn’t always likable and that can be different to relate to for an audience.

Von Sydow, the iconic Swedish actor, acts entirely without dialogue and gives a magnificent performance, conveying his emotions with a twitch of the eyebrow here, a shrug of the shoulders there, and most of all with his eyes. It’s a masterful performance and while it hasn’t gotten much buzz for Supporting Actor consideration, it’s kind of a shame it hasn’t – he deserves it.

There are some moments that are over-the-top precious and try too hard to push our buttons. There are other moments that are incredibly moving and cathartic. Sometimes we learn to deal with our own pain by understanding the pain of others. This is one such opportunity.

REASONS TO GO:. A tremendous story of grief and love. Horn does his best with a difficult role. There are moments that are greatly affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Oskar can be a handful and at times it’s hard to root for him because of his faults. The movie is maudlin in places. Not enough Hanks and Bullock.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes have a lot to do with grieving and loss; some children may find this distressing and disturbing. Some of the images are disturbing and there are some pretty foul words, some of it used by Oskar.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thomas Horn won $30,000 as a champion on Jeopardy Kid’s Week.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reign Over Me

BIG APPLE LOVERS: The movie is filmed in locations all over New York City, including several that rarely make it onto the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Haywire

World Trade Center


World Trade Center

Port Authority Police Officers attempt to outrun the collapse of the World Trade Center.

(Paramount) Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jay Hernandez, Joe Bernthal, Armando Riesco, Jude Ciccolella, Donna Murphy, Danny Nucci, Nicholas Turturro, Patti D’Arbanville, Stephen Dorff, Michael Shannon, Frank Whaley, William Mapother, Peter McRobbie, Ed Jewett. Directed by Oliver Stone.

One of the more indelible events of our lifetimes—all of our lifetimes—is the fall of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The images and emotions of that day are etched forever in our minds and hearts. I truly believe that our generation will be judged by how we respond to it in the same way a previous generation is judged on its response to Pearl Harbor.

While Pearl Harbor happened sixty years ago (ironically, the sixtieth anniversary was less than three months after 9-11), the WTC fell only eight years ago as this is posted (this review was actually written contemporaneously with the film, five years after 9-11). For many of us, the events are too fresh and too painful and I can understand why people I know have stated that they will not go and see this movie under any circumstances. They simply aren’t ready to. Still, it seems that as a nation we need to address these events. The process began with the release of United 93 and continues with World Trade Center.

John McLaughlin (Cage) and William Jimeno (Pena) are Port Authority police officers in New York City. On a Tuesday morning in September, 2001 they both go to work like any other weekday. They go about their business of patrolling the bus terminal or handing out daily assignments. When news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center reaches them they are shocked and horrified.

As they and their comrades Pezzullo (Hernandez), Amoroso (Bernthal), Rodrigues (Riesco) and others are hurriedly sent down to the WTC to help with the evacuation, at first nobody is really clear on what is happening. While McLaughlin seems to have a clearer idea, most of the men are assuming it is all a terrible accident. Once they arrive at the towers and see the devastation, their expressions turn to that of awe and horror. Everyone immediately understands it is going to be a bad day.

They are sent into tower one to go and assist with getting people out. Knowing that the building is full of smoke and flames, McLaughlin wants to make sure they are properly equipped. They have retrieved some additional oxygen from tower two and are walking through the concourse to tower one when the unthinkable happens. The tower collapses on top of them. Despite a desperate attempt to run out of the building, it’s too late. They are caught and buried beneath tons of rubble. Because McLaughlin led them to an elevator shaft, the strongest points of the building, the survivors have hope—they are less than 20 feet from the surface. However, both McLaughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble and unable to help each other. They keep their spirits up by talking about things from their families to why they became cops to the theme from “Starsky and Hurch.”

Back at home, their wives Donna McLaughlin (Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Gyllenhaal) watch in horror at the events unfolding. Fully aware that their husbands were quite likely at the site, they frantically try to get information from the Port Authority. However, things are in chaos—nobody seems to know whether or not they were in the building or not when it came down. There are no answers. The women are forced to sit and wait with their families and friends, unable to give up hope but unable to hope that their husbands are safe and sound. Allison, five months pregnant, in particular is close to the edge. She is preparing herself for the worst case scenario with such conviction that her father (McRobbie) fears for her.

The tension is unbearable. At first the news is that they are all right, then later it is that they are missing. Eventually, word comes down; the two men were inside the Trade Center when it came down. The odds of their survival are bleak.

To a marine named Karnes (Shannon) who came on his own from Connecticut to help aid the rescuers, he cannot give up hope. After the search is called off due to darkness, he takes it upon himself to go into the rubble and search for survivors. Incredibly, he finds two—McLaughlin and Jimeno.

Oliver Stone, whose previous movie was the bloated mess Alexander redeems himself with maybe the most mainstream movie of his career. He keeps the storytelling simple, and why shouldn’t he? The story he is given to work with is one of the most compelling of the 21st century. Even though the movie is well over two hours long, it never drags and keeps hold of your attention throughout.

World Trade Center

The real Will Jimeno and John McLaughlin with the actors who portrayed them.

Cage comes through with maybe the most low-key performance of his career. By all accounts, John McLaughlin is not a man who shows emotion easily (during one point of the movie he pokes gentle fun at himself for “not smiling a lot”) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel. His will to live is bolstered by his need to return to his wife—and complete the kitchen cabinet project he’d been working on. Hey, it’s the little things.

Both Bello and Gyllenhaal turn in outstanding performances. As the wives who are forced to wait, they deal with the stress, the fear and the frustration in different ways. Neither one of them strikes a single false note throughout the movie. Both deserved far more acclaim than they received when the movie was released.

I have to say that the scenes of the Trade Center work extremely well. I’m not sure if they used archival footage of the towers or if they put the towers there digitally, but either way it was tremendously effective. The scene of the actual collapse is breathtaking in a literal sense.

We get a first-hand glimpse of what the survivors and their families went through. I would have liked to have seen a little more on the rescuers, but as Da Queen pointed out to me, it really isn’t their story. I might also have liked to have seen the viewpoint of a family of one of the officers who didn’t survive, but I can understand why that might not have been possible to show. I would imagine few of those families are able to conceive of seeing a movie about the deaths of their loved ones, or about the pain they went through until they finally heard the awful truth.

I’ve always blown hot and cold about Oliver Stone. I love JFK to this day with all its flaws, and I respect Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July but I’m less enamored of Alexander and Natural Born Killers. This ranks up there with his best work. Whether or not you go and see it really is a personal decision. It is not an easy movie to watch in places, and there are a lot of moments that are really hard to keep from crying.

Nicolas Cage, speaking for John McLaughlin, had it right when he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “On that day we saw the worst of humanity, and we saw the best. We saw people taking care of each other.” I left the movie feeling inspired in the same way. We could all use a lot more of it.

WHY RENT THIS: A heartwrenching account of the survival of two heroic transit cops buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, their rescue and the frustration and fear their families felt as in the chaos little or nothing was known of their whereabouts. Bravura performances by Bello and Gyllenhaal are worth noting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who still are emotionally tied to the tragedy of 9-11 may find this too hard to watch.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie may be disturbing as a whole to those who still feel strong emotions about the WTC collapse. There is also some foul language and some scenes depicting the condition of the men who were rescued that are hard to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Will Jimeno and John McLaughlin, as well as members of their family, can be seen in the “Welcome Home” cookout in the final scene. Pena, as Jimeno, hugs the real Will Jimeno.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several. There’s a commentary track with the real Jimeno as well as members of the rescue team, including Scott Strauss who was portrayed by Stephen Dorff and acted as a consultant on the film. There is a documentary on the rescue of the two men, as well as their recovery containing footage from Ground Zero that may be too graphic for the sensitive. There is also a making of feature that Stone discusses the pros and cons of making the film, why it was made so soon despite protests that it should not be and some of the technical difficulties of creating Ground Zero in Los Angeles.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Taken

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.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Proposal