On the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit spent 45 minutes walking, standing, sitting, and lying down on a tightrope that spanned the top of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Man on Wire, James Marsh's gripping documentary about Petit's high-wire exploits, may be one of the best films of the year.
Man on Wire is not a typical art-house documentary. It's almost entirely apolitical, refusing to define Petit's act as a statement about capitalism, industrialization, or performance art. It's neither a muddled, abstract, rhetorical exercise like Standard Operating Procedure nor an insulting travelogue like Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?. If anything, Marsh's work resembles last year's NASA documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, which evoked a similar sense of wonder at the power of human ambition. Yet Man on Wire contains more cinematic excitement than those films and more storytelling chops than the current fictional releases.
Man on Wire is most successful as a straightforward caper picture. But as Petit and his ragtag gang of French and American collaborators recount the extensive preparation and hair-raising actualities of their stunt, Man on Wire changes into a physics problem. As Petit delves into the details of his plan, you start to think along with this mad-eyed, garrulous elf in the banana-yellow Bottle Rocket jumpsuit. How is it possible to stretch the wire across the 200 feet separating the towers? How much will the wind shake the wire at that altitude? How does a guide wire work on a tightrope when there's nothing but air for 1,350 feet?
As the inspired solutions to these problems emerge, Petit's charm and drive seduce the viewer in the same way it clearly seduced his handful of co-conspirators. The rush he felt then still invigorates Petit three decades later: When he re-creates the long night he spent in the World Trade Center avoiding guards and setting up the tightrope, he can't help jabbering wildly and discursively ("A human being with crutches? The universe is his!"), bounding around maniacally, or shrouding himself in some curtains when acting out those tense hours on the night of August 6th when he and a friend hid under a tarp to avoid a security guard.
Although the years of planning and meetings were meticulously filmed, no motion-picture footage of Petit's time atop the Twin Towers exists. Instead, Marsh assembles a series of still photographs set to Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie," which, thanks to its cryptic playing instructions and poetic disregard for tempo and time signatures, is another kind of high-wire act. This fabulous sequence is an elegy to a lost era and a plea for closer, more deliberate observation of the world.
And of course the film is weirdly sad because of the fate of the World Trade Center. In one stunning photograph that unites the past and present, Petit balances in the middle of the wire as an airplane floats by in space, seemingly grazing the top of one of the towers.
So many films portray the destruction of large buildings in pornographic detail. Man on Wire does something different. It re-creates the mystery and majesty of a fallen monument.
Man on Wire
Opening Friday, September 19th