Man On WireReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/16/08 10:56:47
Oh, to hear Philippe Petit talk. His thickly accented words sing, his body dances. An acrobat and street artist by trade, he has spent a life perfecting the art of the gesture, which he uses to transform his stories into mini-masterpieces of performance.If you recognize his name, it is because you remember that in 1974, Petit gained fame for stringing up a 140-foot tightrope across the two towers of the World Trade Center, then walked back and forth for 45 minutes, 1,350 feet in the air, pausing occasionally to lie down on the cable, nothing but that thin wire between him and the quarter mile drop.
Petit is the unmistakable center of James Marsh’s astounding documentary “Man on Wire,” adapted in part from Petit’s own memoir of the event, “To Reach the Clouds.” Marsh uses stock footage, interviews, and reenactments to fill the gaps, but his film explodes with life whenever Petit comes forth. Unable to simply retell his story, Petit uses a lifetime of entertainment experience to animate his memories, leaping around the room, hiding behind a curtain, playing the clown, bursting with excitement, pride, clever suspense. Marsh could have merely set up a single camera in front of Petit, and “Man on Wire” would have been a smashing success.
But there is more to the story than Petit’s own colorful anecdotes. And so we get an in-depth look at the complete planning process that went into Petit’s WTC walk. It’s been said that “Man on Wire” plays out like a ripping heist picture, and Marsh is certainly willing to oblige such an idea, using black-and-white reenactment shots to emphasize the criminal dangers of the stunt. Like any great caper, Petit’s walk had to be meticulously planned early, and like any great caper, Petit’s crew had to stumble upon moment after moment in which their plans could have easily been scrapped by something as simple as a security guard turning his head the wrong way. We can marvel at the walk, but first we must thrill to the idea of these friends gleefully dressed up as construction workers, hiding out under a tarp while a guard enjoys a coffee break a few feet away.
“Man on Wire” is full of glorious moments like these, little side stories that stun the listener. A WTC authority is amused by having been fooled by Petit and crew, who claimed to be French journalists seeking access to the roof. A chance encounter with an apathetic elevator man saved the crew twenty floors of heavy lifting. The solution to the riddle of how to get the wire across the towers is delightful in its unexpected simplicity. One accomplice laughs off the idea that he was stoned during the whole thing.
Perhaps because of Petit’s unabashed pride, or perhaps just by dumb luck, Petit and his friends documented much of their planning efforts with photographs and home movies. This allows Marsh to include such sights as a close group relishing their time together in a lakefront field, where Petit built a replica of the WTC tightrope just a few feet off the ground, for rehearsal purposes. We see the dedication that went into the walk, but more importantly, we see the camaraderie that grew from such a thing. These home movies allow us to peek back thirty-four years and eavesdrop on a close group of friends, and there’s a warmth, a gentleness here that makes their accomplishments all the more powerful.
Petit admits to letting fame go to his head after the walk, and there’s a sense of remorse from his friends. His ex-girlfriend claims there’s a beauty in having their relationship end with the towers. Is she sincere when she says this? It’s such a lovely thought. I’d like to think she means it.Late in the film, Petit tells of how we was (and is) baffled by questions of “why?” How American, he says, a harsh question like that. Can’t we just appreciate the wonder of the moment, the joy of the accomplishment? To Petit, there was no reason, only desire, obsession, the playful need to conquer. “Man on Wire” is the colorful tale of the bold simplicity of an extraordinary achievement. There’s no mention here of the towers’ fall, and that’s intentional: this film takes what has become a symbol of destruction and terror and defiantly takes it back, assigning the towers instead a proud new sense of breathless wonder, a memory of when a man walked among the clouds.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|