Man on Wire
Delightful doc explores high-wire high-tension
By Devin D. O’Leary
Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
The year 2008 has been an odd one for film. Sure, the box office overflowed thanks to films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man. But with the demise of several independent (or semi-independent) distributors, the indie film offerings have felt like slim pickings. Art house theaters have been limited almost exclusively to documentaries this year. A look through our local Guild Cinema’s lineup from the year finds a wealth of nonfiction films like Planet B-Boy, Passion & Power, Body of War, Gashole, Girls Rock!, Let’s Get Lost, Rumi Returning, Constantine’s Sword, Dalai Lama Renaissance, Encounters at the End of the World and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Even mainstream theaters filled out their summertime schedule with documentaries like Young@Heart, American Teen and The Little Red Truck. It’s hard to complain about the variety, though, when the quality remains so damn high. All in all, 2008 has been a hell of a year for documentaries.
Sticking with the trend, Guild Cinema now ushers in Man on Wire, the delightful new doc from Brit James Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip). The film examines, in microcosm, tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s illegal 1974 attempt to perform a high-wire act between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Using a heavy amount of historical re-enactment, the film throws us right into Petit’s tense and exhilarating story. The credits roll. It’s the day of the attempt. Petit and his accomplices are sneaking into the WTC with forged I.D. cards, disguises, a bow and arrow, and several hundred feet of hidden cable. It’s a mad scheme in which anything can (and will) go wrong. And it’s carried out with all the preplanning and tripwire timing of a classic heist film.
Marsh has reassembled all the key players: Petit himself, a group of loyal Frenchmen, a handful of confused and possibly unreliable Americans, one crazy Australian and a deeply concerned girlfriend. Offering just enough background to establish its characters, the film keeps its narrative centered tightly around the job in question. Six years of concerted planning went into this dangerous stunt. As a young man in Paris, Petit--street magician, juggler, self-taught aerialist--saw a newspaper article on the soon-to-be-built World Trade Center. It was as if his destiny had been sketched out for him in black and white. He was going to span those towers or die trying. In the proceeding years, Petit made a reputation for himself as a daring, rebelliously romantic balancing act. He walked across the towers of Notre Dame, spanned the Sydney Harbour Bridge, then set his sights on New York City.
As Petit and his collaborators lay out the many steps in their plan, we see each death-defying development. Like George Clooney’s accomplices in Ocean’s Eleven, Petit’s gang is made up of colorful characters, some of whom add special skills, some of whom are inside men and one or two of whom might end up betraying the group. By judiciously spreading out the backstory, Marsh keeps the film’s narrative focused squarely on the fateful day. Petit’s good-natured audacity is a wonder to behold, and the Mission: Impossible-like story plays out like the best bar-room boast you’ve ever heard. Every word of it, though, is true. Marsh has assembled the news footage, the newspaper articles and the archival footage to prove it.
The elephant in the room is Sept. 11, 2001. Marsh has the good grace to ignore it. There may be some uncomfortable moments for certain viewers; watching Petit bamboozle security guards and construction workers at the Twin Towers, gaining access to restricted areas, compiling architectural drawings and hiding important equipment inside the infamous buildings. Despite the criminality (not to mention the grave personal risk) of Petit’s endeavor, it’s all in good fun. The film is clearly a tribute to the mad stuntman’s ideas of freedom and beauty. The emotion that overcomes his fellow plotters as they describe Petit “walking on clouds”--a full 34 years after the fact--is a testament to the emotions of the day. Seeing archival footage of people looking up at the World Trade Center in awe, wonderment and a certain gleeful tension gives thoughtful and quite welcome contrast to the more common images of that fateful structure currently burned into our brains.
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