When John Lennon was murdered, I wondered whether it would ever again be possible to hear The Beatles’ music the way we heard it before. I wondered whether tragedy and ugliness had the power to taint the beauty of what they had done. A similar question is suggested by James Marsh’s enthralling documentary about French aerialist Philippe Petit’s August 7, 1974, high-wire walk between the towers of New York’s 110-story World Trade Center. Is it possible to appreciate the poetry of what took place up there on that day more than 30 years ago, now that the buildings are no longer there? It’s a testament to the enduring power of art that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.
Man on Wire, a rare double winner of both Sundance’s jury prize and its audience award for World Documentary, chronicles the conception, planning and commission of “the artistic crime of the century.” It’s fitting, therefore, that the British-born filmmaker appropriates the conventions of a heist caper to tell the story. It’s Houdini meets Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen all rolled into one.
Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip) utilizes a mix of interviews, archival footage and photographs, in addition to cleverly staged re-enactments. Front and center is Petit himself, now in his fifties, who remains a charismatic and articulate force of nature. “My story is a fairy tale,” he says rather grandly early on, then proceeds to prove the statement absolutely valid. He recounts a life-defining moment in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, when 17-year-old Petit opened a magazine to see an artist’s rendering of the Twin Towers years before they were built. In that instant he glimpsed his destiny. As he puts it, “I had acquired my dream.”
For the next seven years, the self-taught street performer focused on cultivating his skills as a tightrope walker. At the same time, he developed his trademark flair for spectacle. As he saw them, his high-wire exhibitions weren’t stunts but performances; accordingly, he scoured the globe for “beautiful stages.” While he waited for the WTC to become reality, Petit and a merry band of French, American and Australian accomplices stunned the world with daring public displays. He illegally walked between the two bell towers of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, and later between the pylons of Australia’s Sydney Harbor Bridge. “Walking” hardly describes what Petit did on the wire, however. He ran, leapt, knelt, lay down and even occasionally juggled. The word one of the New York officers who arrested him used was “dance.”
All this time the towers were going up, and watching their progress is an eerie experience. Familiar footage from the period following the 9/11 attacks appears to unwind in reverse, as recognizable steel fragments ascend back into place. Neither the director nor any of the film’s interview subjects directly alludes to that day of terror. There’s no need. It’s impossible not to think of it every second the building is on-screen.
Upon its completion, Petit and his crew plot to get past security, transport nearly a ton of equipment to the top floor, and string a heavy metal cable across the 200-foot chasm separating the world’s highest rooftops. A big fan of bank caper films, Petit approached the challenge much as the leader of a gang might prepare for a high-stakes robbery: with forged IDs, disguises and countless dry runs. To get a more detailed picture of the Trade Center’s upper levels, the artist and two sidekicks posed as a journalist and photographers and wandered at will under the noses of WTC management.
All of which didn’t prevent virtually everything that could go wrong from going wrong on the day of the “coup.” I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say that the night preceding Petit’s death-defying feat was as white-knuckle an adventure as anything dreamt up in Hollywood — and that what Petit achieved the next morning a quarter-mile above astonished New Yorkers is beyond anything in the annals of guerilla art. They may have been foolhardy and self-promoti ng and broken any number of laws, but those 45 minutes Petit spent at the top of the world were undeniably awe- inspiring.
Man on Wire is a singular story told with exceptional finesse. Expect Marsh’s latest to be remembered when awards season rolls around, and Philippe Petit’s dance in the clouds to have a long after-life, in large part thanks to the film.