Review: Man on Wire
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
On a misty August 7 in 1974, French tightrope walker Phillipe Petit committed “the artistic crime of the century” when he illegally rigged a cable between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and performed a high-wire act at 1,350 feet for 45 minutes before surrendering to police. The stunt made global headlines and for a short period, Petit kept onlookers entranced by his art. Almost exactly 34 years later, UK director James Marsh (2005's “The King”) does the same with “Man on Wire,” a poetic treasure of a documentary that's brimming with passion. Thoroughly devoted to his subject and highly adept at seamlessly merging together his varied source material, Marsh imbues his chronicle of the event with emotion and inspiration, inducing both tears and cheers.
“Man on Wire” begins like a heist movie. In shady black and white, reenactments show anonymous men in full conspiracy mode gearing up for what looks like a well-planned bank robbery. (In the background, Richard Nixon's post-Watergate “crook” speech even plays on a TV.) We learn it's the restaging of Petit and his cohorts' meticulous plot to gain access to the roofs of the newly constructed North and South Towers, then the world's tallest buildings, all for the sole objective of putting on the ultimate one-man show (we learn later, from an insider, that the infiltration process was perhaps Petit's favorite part of the mission.) Once there, the men had to conceal themselves from security guards and wait hours before getting down to business. Marsh uses this duration's quietness to recount the things in Petit's life that brought him to a hiding place over 100 stories up.
A climber since childhood, Petit had his eye on the towers from the moment he saw plans for their construction in a French magazine. Prone to using acrobatics as a way of rebelling against his strict upbringing, he viewed them as the perfect conquest, claiming they were being created just for him. Marsh plays off this notion with a sequence of dual chronologies displayed together in split screen, one side showing the building of the towers, beam by beam, the other depicting Petit's growth, year by year, photo by photo. Marsh also familiarizes us with Petit's fine-tuned skills, incorporating shots of him practicing two feet from the ground in grassy fields and conquering other man-made wonders like the bell towers of Notre Dame and Austrailia's Sydney Harbour Bridge. No matter the location, it's truly transfixing to watch the man in action, like a Balanchine dancer in the sky.
Marsh is able to show so much of Petit's life in the 1970's because of the staggering amount of quality archival footage he had at his disposal. Evidently, Petit and his friends documented all of their activities, making “Man on Wire” appear to have been in production for decades. From Petit's days as a child street performer in Paris, right up to a view from the streets of Manhattan on the day of his proudest achievement, much of “Man on Wire” is made up of home movies that almost look like they were shot professionally. The simple, beautiful nature of what's being presented may have a timeless aesthetic but the inclusion of the old footage could suggest a post-postmodern revolution in cinema: after over a century of recording the moving image, uncovered, previously unpublished material can be just as good as what's being made today. The rest of Marsh's film has been artfully crafted to fill in the gaps and match what was already acquired. Cautiously avoiding the cheap, History Channel look to which so many non-fiction accounts fall victim, he recreates his subjects' stories with a painterly eye. Depending on the mood of the scene, the reenactments move from having a soft, moonlit glow to being noir-ish bits of chiaroscuro. And the pacing is in sync with what's on screen, as interviewees are consulted as if they were guest stars on an episode of “CSI.”
Petit, of course, divulges many of the facts himself in the interviews. A director's dream come true, he's endlessly entertaining as “Man on Wire”'s effervescent center. Now pushing 60 (he was a lean, sinewy 25 in 1974), Petit still possesses a contagious amount of enthusiasm about the famous stunt and about his life as a death-defying showman. Physically resembling Malcolm McDowell circa “A Clockwork Orange” in his youth (behaviorally, too - all stern focus with humor simmering underneath), he's now, at least in spirit, like a close cousin to Roberto Benigni. When describing what he did and still does, he emits unfettered excitement, hardly able to remain seated. And his accomplices, while not as animated, speak with similar fervency, especially former lover, Annie, who seems to be on the verge of a glorious breakdown with every breath. In case you had any doubts as to whether balancing oneself on a wire was an artistic expression, these people will leave you utterly convinced.
American audiences may be surprised to find that this movie, about a man who risked death to dance between the Twin Towers, created in a post-9/11 world, makes no mention of the of the fact that the structures are no longer standing. Not one. The Eurocentric point of view of the film may have contributed to this but, probably not. “Man on Wire” is not about mourning and it is not about regret. It is about celebration and it may be the most celebratory World Trade Center-themed film to be released since the fateful 2001 attacks. It celebrates life and accomplishment, two things that no act of terrorism could crumble, and presents a true artist: one who - as Petit, himself, confirms - is most alive when applying his talent and accomplishing his goals.