Man on Wire
Daredevil Worshipping: Man on Wire re-creates a jaw-dropping high-wire exploit.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
On August 7, 1974, as the Watergate scandal reached its height– that is, Nixon resigned the next day– a young Frenchman reached a more literal height. Philippe Petit, together with a band of accomplices, snuck into the World Trade Center, still under construction, and strung a wire between the towers, upon which Petit– an extraordinary wire-walker– not only walked, but also danced, hopped, lay down and even playfully taunted arriving police– all at a mere 1,350 feet above the hard streets and sidewalks of Manhattan. No net. No safety backup of any kind.
Under “Details,” the subsequent police complaint simply said, “Man on Wire”– which filmmaker James Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip, The King) has plucked for the title of his thrilling account of Petit’s accomplishment.
Petit, then in his 20s, had a penchant for spectacular stunts: He had previously done lower-altitude versions of his tower-spanning act at Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Opera House. On a certain rational level, the height shouldn’t make a difference; had Petit slipped, he would be exactly as dead from 1,350 feet as from a tenth that.
But physical equilibrium isn’t the only skill Petit had to summon. All three of the above events were unauthorized, but the World Trade Center exploit involved months of subterfuge and planning, climaxing in a night of strenuous, nerve-wracking activity that should have left Petit exhausted and off his game before he ever stepped out on the wire.
Marsh combines stills, Petit’s home movie footage from the time, and judicious reenactments to accompany a chronological narration from Petit and a half dozen of his co-conspirators. While no actual heist was pulled off, Man on Wire is exactly like a heist film, detailing the planning, recruitment, surveillance and execution of the caper… complete with internal tensions, setbacks and mistakes, some of which ironically prove beneficial.
Beautifully put together, it is every bit as suspenseful as even the best Hollywood heist films, which is even more remarkable when you consider that we know, from the first frame, that Petit will survive. There he is, clearly in his 50s, telling us the story.
Petit himself must have the world’s most productive adrenal glands. Even today, he’s a force of sheer energy, which is appealing but has a darker side. In 1974, he loved girlfriend Annie and best male friend Jean-Louis. But his insistence that they abet him in this crazy, possibly fatal enterprise took an emotional toll. In the recent interview footage, Jean-Louis breaks down more than once, reflecting on his anxieties and sense of responsibility as the big day approached. The whole affair seems to have permanently damaged their lifelong friendship.
The split with Annie also betrays Petit’s dark attraction to fame. She had helped him in his aspirations for years. Yet, after his release by the New York cops, he was supposed to immediately rejoin her and the others to meet the press, but instead kept them waiting while he boffed his first American groupie.
Marsh never refers to 9/11, which certainly makes sense. First, what could he say that wouldn’t sound stupid? Second, viewers will already be thinking about it without prompting.
Marsh’s single, albeit minor, misstep is that he horizontally stretches the standard-aspect-ratio home movie footage to fill the frame. Better to have black bars on the sides than to make everybody look bloated.
And a caution: Acrophobiacs beware! Even though I knew Petit wouldn’t fall, and even though the climax is presented in stills– there is no film footage from the top of the towers– I had to cover my eyes frequently and sometimes felt nauseous. Just thinking about it now gives me the willies.
MAN ON WIRE (3½) Directed by James Marsh • Starring Philippe Petit, Annie Allix, and Jean-Louis Blondeau. • PG-13, 90 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.