Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire is a standard-issue take on a quirky man with an outstanding, if dated, story. Philippe Petit is the kind of acrobatic leading man you used to see in Hollywood movies, an actor with an outstanding capacity for performance who could have been Fred Astaire if only he were more attractive or even lovable. Instead, like Clifton Webb in Laura, all we see on screen is a man in love with his own abilities, and after a while he becomes more circus geek than love object.
But even geeks have friends, and Petit in the early 1970s had a group of freewheeling lovers and buddies who lived in a kind of circus commune that revolved around Petit's outlandish plans for tightrope walking in unusual places. Part tent-show act, part illegal performance art, Petit's walks in places where he was unwelcome, from the towers of Notre Dame in Paris to the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, required an extraordinary amount of preparation, both acrobatic and pragmatic, so he could succeed without getting caught.
Wire focuses on Petit's greatest feat, 45 minutes of a high-wire walk between the two World Trade Center buildings, which were briefly the tallest buildings in the world, in August of 1974. Before the towers fell, they were considered a government boondoggle, the corporate equivalent of public-housing high rises and neighborhood-destroying interstate projects. Being French, Petit was able to romanticize the buildings, though you wonder if it was only because the two towers made for a perfect platform for his walk.
The bulk of the narrative tells the story of planning the walk, which ends up placing the audience in the role of the criminal, looking to avoid security guards and plant the needed equipment. Marsh makes ample use of footage the group took at the time, giving life to a story that otherwise would have relied on Petit and others reminiscing about the past. Although the story is remarkable, it seems unlikely that the documentary would have received the fanfare it did--awards at the Sundance and Full Frame festivals--were it not for the connection to the World Trade Center. Sept. 11 looms over the movie, making audience rooting for Petit's success, which could have been put to nefarious ends, suspect.
The walk across the towers is a glorious one, for those who dream of having 45 minutes of death-defying fame. But Marsh is careful to show the strain of such an accomplishment, encouraged by the usual pitfalls of stardom along with the letdown that surely follows such a thrill. While the David Blaines of the world get television shows and permits for their dubious tricks, Petit insisted on doing things his own way, the law be damned.