Man on Wire
Director : James Marsh
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
The subject of James Marsh’s engrossing documentary Man on Wire is so good that it’s a wonder no one has thought to make a film about it before. It’s not that the story is in any way a secret (on the contrary, it made international headlines in August of 1974), but it is quite possible that enough time has passed to allow it to fall into the deeper recesses of public consciousness; those who were alive at the time murmur something along the lines of “Yeah, I seem to remember that …,” while many of those who were born after the event, which would come to be called “the greatest artistic crime of the century,” might very well have never heard of it. Which is precisely what makes Man on Wire such a treat: It mines recent history in a way that makes it seem new and invigorating, reminding us of how wonderfully, blissfully deranged human behavior can be.
The film’s subject is the French aerialist Phillipe Petite’s daring 45-minute tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. But, that is just the climax. Like any great feat, criminal or otherwise, the pleasure is in watching the build-up--the planning, the marshalling of resources, the execution of the plan, the tense moments of nearly getting caught. Director James Marsh, who has previously made both feature films and documentaries, sees Petite’s outrageous stunt as a cunning heist, and he organizes his film accordingly. Mixing together new interviews with Petite, his motley crew of American and European conspirators, photographs of the event, and clever recreations, Marsh turns Man on Wire into a nail-biter of a thriller, which is all the more extraordinary given the fact that we know Petite is going to pull it off. The question becomes “How?” How are he and his associates going to sneak into then-still-under-construction World Trade Center towers with hundreds of pounds of equipment (including at least 200 feet of three-quarter-inch steel cable weighing 450 pounds), make it to the roof, and set up a complex tightrope apparatus that can sustain high winds more than 1,350 feet above the streets of New York City? The unfolding answers to those questions is what compels Man on Wire along as it draws you into Petite’s artfully inspired scheme that still amazes those who pulled it off.
The film’s star, of course, is Petite himself, who was 24 years old when he walked between the towers, a feat he had already pulled off on a smaller scale in Paris (Notre Dame) and Australia (the Sydney Harbor Bridge). Looking not a bit unlike a particularly mischievous Malcolm McDowell, Petite is a dream documentary subject who knows how to sell an already extraordinary story. Boisterous, animated, and relentlessly devilish with his subvert-the-authorities demeanor, he may be more than three decades older, but his heart is clearly the same as the one that pranced between the towers, giddily eluding the police officers who were trying to snatch him. In telling his story, he hides behind curtains (to illustrate how he and an accomplice spent several hours sitting on a beam covered with a tarp to avoid detection by a wandering night security officer), demonstrates his techniques with scale models, and generally delights in reliving what one of the cops who took him down rightfully declared to be a completely unique event that would never be seen again.
Of course, knowing that the Twin Towers are now gone gives Man on Wire an expectedly bittersweet tone, which Marsh never explicitly milks. Although 9/11 haunts the film constantly (especially in the archival footage of the towers under construction--going up instead of falling down), it is never directly mentioned, nor should it be, since this is not a film about terrorist destruction, but rather a film about the sheer exuberance of defying authority for the sake of personal expression. Petite’s antics were technically criminal, but as Petite himself noted both at the time of his arrest and today, there is no easy “why” to explain them. To do so would reduce his death-defying accomplishment to simple psychodymanics and tear it away from the high-wire art and life philosophy he so fervently pursued.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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