16 September 2008


In 1974, Philippe Petit, an impish, excitable young Frenchman did an impossible thing—he managed to string a tightrope across the roofs of the World Trade Center twin towers and walk on it (although "dancing" seems a more fitting description). James Marsh's (THE KING, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP) documentary explains how he did this.

Structured like a heist film, MAN ON WIRE recounts in-depth the planning and preparation that went into pulling off such a stunt. It's both an edge-of-your-seat thriller and an oral history of sorts, consisting of modern day interviews with the ever sinewy Petit and his accomplices—most of whom are nearly as entertaining as Petit, from his still-in-awe ex-girlfriend Annie to two perpetually stoned Americans (bluntly described by the others as "losers") who were corralled in to string the rope.

Marsh supplements these interviews with archival footage and reenactments. The latter might be the least cheesy ever: impressionistic and mostly in silhouette or shadow, they're delicately folded into the story and rarely register as jarring or distracting. Still, the archival footage is astonishing, from Petit's prior tightrope walking feats across the Sydney Harbor bridge and the Norte Dame cathedral to his prep work in the French countryside—his irreverent spirit there is summed up by a puckish handmade road sign pointing the way to the "World Trade Center Association" with a crude stick figure drawing at its side of Petit walking across the towers.

It all builds to the event itself, which unfolds in a series of still shots of Petit on the rope, 100 stories up from the ground, accompanied by Erik Satie's gorgeous piano piece "Gymnopédie No.1" (as effective here in its starkness and simplicity as it was in FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON). What's so appealing about the film is that it examines an artist who puts on a show, rather than one merely showing off. Petit's walk comes off not only as a challenge to realize or an act of rebellion, but as work of art, something full of grace and beauty.

Neither Marsh nor his subjects make a single direct reference to 9/11, and they don't need to. Just the sight of the towers themselves resonates differently than it once did. The towers' presence on screen haunts and their absence adds weight to Petit's accomplishment. Reminiscing on Petit's walk and its aftermath, one accomplice starts to say, "This was the end of something" before he breaks down in tears, and we immediately understand the dual meaning behind his words. MAN ON WIRE derives much of its power from being equal parts celebration and requiem.

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