Man on Wire
Now Showing at: Esquire Theatre.
Review by: Larry Thomas
What compels a person to attempt the seemingly impossible, risking life and limb, to be the first, and the best? No, we’re not rehashing the Olympics here. The film is Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit, who in 1974 pulled off a death-defying wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
In his native Paris, Petit was a street performer, juggler, unicyclist, but first and foremost, a wirewalker. His passion for exercising his talent could quite rightly be labeled an obsession, always reaching for bigger and better. He performed a routine on a high wire between the two spires of Notre Dame Cathedral. Later, Australian traffic came to a standstill as he did the same for one of the tallest, and busiest, bridges in downtown Sidney. But as soon as he saw the plans for the yet un-built World Trade Center, Petit knew it was to be his crowning achievement.
The film by director James Marsh is put together from three components. There is archival footage of Petit’s well-documented career, showing his exploits and rehearsals. For situations that are of importance to his history, but were not filmed, Marsh recreates the situations using actors to fill in the blanks. And there are interviews with the members of the crew…friends and strangers who all banded together to assist in pulling off what was a seemingly impossible task. Sadly, none of the former friends are still friendly, as the event took its stressful toll on those relationships.
Philippe Petit is an engaging, consumed, immensely talented and charismatic fellow. You can see the determination, and perhaps a little madness, in his eyes. In addition to possessing pinpoint precision, he’s also quite full of himself.
The film, and the act itself, is set up and executed like a heist movie. The crew needed to simultaneously gain illegal access to the top floor of two buildings with almost a ton of equipment, evading security guards, and stringing the wire undetected. It’s a masterpiece of planning and thought, and given the ultimate fate of the buildings, there is more than an added edge to the accomplishment.
The twin towers are the second most important character in the film, and the opportunity to see the breathtaking still shots and movie footage from both above and below is a loving tribute to the now gone structures.
Another excellent feature of Man on Wire is the use of previously written music…Beethoven, Satie, and especially the brilliant British film composer Michael Nyman, who recycles some of his catchy themes from 1982’s The Draughtsman's Contract.
Philippe Petit is fascinating. His accomplishment is astounding. And the film is a riveting look behind the strategy, logistics, and psychology of what makes something so rare even possible. Besides being a terrific documentary, Man on Wire is a terrific story, and will likely be recognized as one of the best films of the year.
The PG-13 rated Man on Wire is now showing at the Esquire Theatre.