Man on Wire (2008) dir. James Marsh
French acrobat Philippe Petit's attempt to cross the two roofs of the NYC Twin Towers by high wire in 1974 has been dubbed the 'artistic crime of the year'. James Marsh has turned this story into one of the best films of the year, a riveting documentary, as tense and suspenseful as any dramatic thriller I’ve seen this year.
Philippe Petit, talking to camera with effervescent zeal, describes how, even before the Twin Towers were built the massive monument called to him to conquer it. Back in France he had already climbed the Notre Dame Cathedral and crossed it via his tightrope. And the same thing in Sydney Australia by illegally crossing a lengthy suspension bridge. But conquering the Twin Towers would be his most challenging achievement. Filmmaker James Marsh cuts back and forth between the day of Aug 7, 1974 and the long planning process required to pull it off.
As the story progresses we get to know the childhood and youth of Petit and the personality which contributed to his insane desire to put his life on the line in the name of art. We hear from his devoted girlfriend and the motley crew of accomplices who help him plot the crime.
After seeing “Man on Wire” I might accuse Marsh of theft from Errol Morris if his film wasn’t so damned good. Marsh pays homage to the great filmmaker by employing a similar cinematic style. Marsh’s interviews are shot behind non-descript studio backgrounds, and intercut with artistically recreated scenes. The recreations are well beyond anything you'd see on the Discover Channel though, they are shot like an abstract rendering of the memories of the participants. For example, Petit and his colleagues recall hiding under a tarp while the nightwatchman patrols the upper floor of the Tower the evening before climbing to the roof. The sequence is dramatized with only a handful of shots from obscure angles – just enough information to tell the audience what’s going on and maximizing the suspense of the scene.
Marsh plays out the action with the procedure detail of a CSI episode. We get to see all the planning and rehearsals, along with the real maps, blueprints, diagrams, checklists, and photos used to detail the 'heist'.
The heart of the film is Philippe, himself, who provides as much off-the-wall French humour as suspense. He’s naturally a clown, a joker, and a shit disturber with giddy sense of childish enthusiasm. Watch his eyes light up when he describes the first time he heard of the Twin Towers being erected in New York City. He describes it as a beacon commanding him to conquer it
By the time Petit makes it through the night unseen, onto the roof and have the wire successfully rigged, we almost forget that he actually has to complete his stunt by walking on the wire half a mile above the earth. The photos which visualize his walk on air are so breathtaking, even though I was in my theatre seat, I felt the sensation of height and the brief moments of utter fear. But for Philippe walking the wire was the easy part, and a cathartic release of freedom in a place where no one could touch him.
The World Trade Centre was’t climbed, because it’s there. Petit's journey is the completion of a large extensive work of performance art. He refers to his walk on the wire as a dance, a moment of spectacle for his audience below.
What’s never referenced but hangs over the entire film is the fact that 27 years later Philippe’s greatest achievement would lay on the ground in rumbles. A good part of the film is about the building of the towers and the news coverage surrounding it. As we see the large steel beams be put in place, it reminds us of those haunting images of those same mangled parts lying on the ground after 9/11. So without reference to 9/11 “Man on Wire” is the ultimate love letter to the two towers.