Man on Wire (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Man on Wire Poster

Man on Wire is a fascinating time capsule: a combination of talking-head interviews, actual footage, and re-creations that evokes a kinder, gentler world and provides insight into one of the most audacious stunts of the 20th century. Pieced together with some of the rhythms and beats of a heist movie, James Marsh's examination of Philippe Petit's 1974 high wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center explores every aspect of the feat, from the detailed planning to the execution. Petit's action remains as head shakingly, jaw droppingly improbable today is it did on the morning of August 7, 1974.

At the time when this documentary transpires, the World Trade Center was a relatively new complex. The Twin Towers were still in their infancy. They were big and bold, but not yet iconic. Many New Yorkers hated them: utilitarian, austere monuments to modern technology that reached to the sky and blocked out the sun. The Towers' stature was built over the years by a number of events, one of which was Petit's 200-foot walk, which occurred more than two years before Dino DeLaurentiis' King Kong would make his last stand high atop these buildings.

Petit, born in 1949, first became obsessed with the Twin Towers when, as a teenager, he saw an artist's rendering of the then-uncompleted buildings. From that point, his goal was to stretch a cable between them and traverse it. (Something he eventually did eight times in a 45-minute period.) "Practice" runs included some areal daredevil work at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A great deal of planning and preparation was necessary to accomplish the World Trade Center event. Since such a tightrope act was illegal, subterfuge was necessary and there were environmental issues to consider. If the tops of the towers were fogged in, no one would see Petit's actions and if it was windy, he could be blown off. Plus, there was the issue of stringing, tightening, and stabilizing the 450-pound cable across the 200-foot gap from the North Tower to the South Tower - not an easy achievement since it had to be done by a small team in complete secrecy.

Petit, a lively, charismatic character who speaks fluent English, narrates this story. Although there is no footage of the actual crossing (still photos only), there is plenty of film of Petit preparing for the event. There are also interviews with many of his accomplices, including his girlfriend and some Americans who became involved for frivolous reasons. Although their comments provide some additional perspective on the intricacies of the plot, this is Petit's film and he never relinquishes center stage. Even without a wire, he's still a consummate performer. He peppers his tale with anecdotes. One of the most amusing is that he reveals, after being released by the police following the WTC stunt, he had sex with an anonymous woman who approached him on his way out of the station. (The film helpfully recreates this event, providing the "sexual situations" and "nudity" elements that made what is pretty much a PG film into one with a PG-13 rating.)

There is, of course, an elephant in the room. While Petit is Man on Wire's undisputed star, his co-stars are the towers. It's impossible to look at them and not think of their fate. 9/11 is not mentioned in the film (although it would have been interesting to hear Petit's feelings about the demise of the site of his greatest triumph), but the WTC is perhaps better known now for its end than anything that came before that. There are some eerie moments. A shot of the construction site from late 1966 or early 1967 is strikingly similar to images of Ground Zero after most of the debris had been removed, and one of the stills of Petit on the wire shows an airplane in the background. Ultimately, however, Man on Wire represents a remembrance of the Twin Towers that has nothing to do with horror, death, and destruction and of the man who accomplished something that few would even consider, let alone attempt.

Man on Wire (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Philippe Petit
Cinematography: Igor Martinovic
Music: J. Ralph
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Drugs, Nudity)
Subtitles: Some English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1