He walks through the air with the greatest of ease, this daring Frenchman brings audiences to their knees.
In one of 2008’s most surprising and tightly crafted documentaries, we’re introduced to the notorious and charming daredevil Philippe Peitit in director James Marsh’s Man on Wire. While admittedly he’s so egomaniacal that Petit claims with the utmost conviction that he felt like the Twin Towers had been built for his own personal pleasure, I forgave this bold boast immediately. Especially considering that — given the tragic events of 9/11 — I’d prefer to remember the Towers the way Petit does as simply two grand buildings he couldn’t wait to climb in the early 1970s.
The seed for the rather outrageous idea was planted in an equally bizarre twist of fate when, stuck killing time in his dental office’s waiting room nursing a bad tooth, the 17-year-old Frenchman read about the construction of the astronomically tall buildings. Committing his first of several “heist” inspired crimes, Petit pretended to sneeze and tore out the page which propelled him all the way through his quest.
Soon enough, the self-admitted childhood “little climber” that no one could ever stop promptly forgot about his toothache. Instead he focused entirely on his new dream, namely conquering the Twin Towers not for violent reasons but rather to inspire and entertain by taking a mentally questionable walk in the clouds (not to be confused with the Keanu Reeves movie).
However, in order to do so, Petit would need practice, accomplices, and clever calculation and thus begins director James Marsh’s fascinatingly magical film noir heist inspired documentary. Although he uses Petit’s own memoir To Reach the Clouds as the ultimate resource for Wire, ironically Filmmaker reports that Marsh first became inspired to make the film after reading the adaptation of Petit’s tale in the children’s book (which was also turned into a fairy tale-like video), The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.
Marsh follows the merry camaraderie of the international pranksters as they painstakingly take an entire year to setup Petit’s first illegal 1971 tightrope walk across Notre Dame. While given the decade, most of us would’ve been shaking in our platform shoes, Petit remains cool as an ice cream cone, managing to juggle objects and dazzle onlookers in his dynamic, noticeable all-black attire and despite his first arrest, Petit recalls it with clown-like glee.
From there we move onto his ’73 escapade on the Sydney Harbor Bridge, after which preparations begin as the film shows the unexpectedly elaborate, mathematical, and logical challenges encountered by the group as they conspire to move on to New York. Battling misfortune and near-busts, the members of the original gang candidly reveal their path to Petit’s forty-five minute wire-walk consisting of eight dazzling crossings between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974 as if it happened yesterday.
It’s an oft-cited challenge in historical documentary filmmaking to capture the tension of decades-old events without inducing yawns and/or snores but nothing about this film feels dated. The success of the piece owes not only a great deal to the generosity of its hammy subject and superb skill of the imaginative director but also the fact that the event they’re relating seems so unreal, you instantly realize it’s the type of once-in-a-lifetime adventure those onscreen will never be able to forget.
It’s ironic to imagine an American audience cheering on our law-breaking heroes as they plot and conspire to breach WTC security but we quickly feel implicit in the event and manage to temporarily forget the usual terror-based association the mere image of the Towers bring up. So in stark contrast to the way those horrific events forever tainted their prior symbolism, which was meant to illustrate the limitlessness of the American and, by extension, every individual’s (including Petit’s) dream, now that it’s been captured in such an exquisite film, audiences in future generations will thankfully have a joyful alternative view and connotation of the majesty of the Towers.
As it continues, Marsh weaves in phenomenal archival footage, Kubrickian reenactments, and original photographs as well. However, the film’s high points frequently consist of personal accounts by the charismatic, overly energetic Petit who manages to charm and awe with laughter and mischief every time he’s on screen (sometimes prompting expectant chuckles before he even begins speaking).
And along the way, in what appears to have been a tremendously difficult post-production challenge in editing it together into a taut, nerve-wracking, yet charming film, Marsh balances the entire piece with some of Petit’s favorite compositions by The Piano scorer Michael Nyman (who generously offered his music) along with uplifting, familiar works by French composer Eric Satie. The music is truly a standout and while I haven’t heard mention of a soundtrack yet, fortunately the works by Nyman and Satie are readily available on numerous albums, should you want to do a little musical digging.
As a film, Man on Wire is a staggering achievement that feels like a fresh and life-affirming celebration of both our human and creative potential and in retrospect, I felt as though it impressively captivated audience attention at a far more urgent level than recent narrative fiction offerings. I can’t speak for the country’s prospects at this year’s Olympic Games but when it comes to Philippe Petit and Man on Wire, “Vive la France,” indeed!
Marsh’s film won four audience awards at film festivals across the globe including an additional prestigious accolade, specifically the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Man on Wire, which takes its title from the description of the event in the official NYPD police report, opens today in limited release in a deliciously ironic marketing twist, as it's incidentally thirty-four years plus one day after the original, landmark walk took place.
And needless to say, while it’s the type of film about which you’ll want to shout from the rooftops while recommending to others, please — for your own safety — make sure you do so with your feet firmly planted on concrete and not balancing upon a metal wire.