Philippe Petit’s tightrope skills will keep you wired. Photo © 2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau/ Polaris Images
MAN ON WIRE directed by James Marsh. A Mongrel Media release. 94 minutes. Some subtitles. For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN
Man On Wire towers over most docs
In August 1974, Philippe Petit, a self-taught tightrope walker from France, stepped onto a 2-centimetre steel cable he'd strung between the tops of the not-quite-finished World Trade Center towers using a bow and arrow. He'd dreamed up the stunt while at the dentist, long before the buildings were built and before he'd ever taken up wire walking.
Over the next 45 minutes, Petit crossed the 140-foot gap eight times, occasionally pausing to kneel, sit or lie down, thrilling onlookers below and teasing the police until they threatened to snatch him by helicopter.
New York loved him for it. The Big Apple was a bit rotten at the time - Death Wish was released the same year, in case you forget the city's seedy reputation - and this absurd Frenchman's daring escapade captured the imagination. He became an instant celebrity, even dislodging Nixon from the front page on the day before his Watergate resignation.
But fame fizzled, and the world, by which I mean New York City, quickly forgot Petit.
Fortunately, he's been plucked from obscurity by James Marsh's stunning and redemptive documentary.
On the surface, Man On Wire is about nothing significant: a man walked on a wire (although "walked" is the most pedestrian description of Petit's accomplishment in every possible sense). Yet his story, and the riveting way Marsh shares it, has tremendous resonance and poignancy.
Until the morning of September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers were merely the two most dominant features of an imposing skyline. Much has been done to memorialize them since. But Man On Wire accomplishes something far grander - it romanticizes what were esentially two tall ugly blocks of concrete, glass and steel.
There are no explicit references to the destruction of the towers, yet a sense of foreboding courses through the film, in scenes of the messy construction, the re-enactment of Petit's daring heist-like infiltration of the buildings, even in a simple photograph of a plane passing overhead as Petit makes his precarious trick more than 400 metres above the pavement.
That Petit is the first interviewee featured, thereby confirming that he survived, does nothing to alleviate the nerve-rattling tension that follows. Man On Wire evokes the feeling of working without a net, no less so than at the sight of Petit, an impish charmer of ordinary stature, suspended over immense chasms as though floating on air.
Asked by New York reporters why he'd done it, Petit was baffled. Wasn't doing something beyond compare reason enough?
"There is no why," he exclaimed, moments after occupying a space that no longer exists.