There is much more than meets the eye in James Marsh’s thrilling new documentary, Man on Wire. On the surface, the film appears to be a recounting of one of the most spectacular stunts of the 20th Century, as it documents Philippe Petit’s daring high wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974. That feat and the daring, planning and luck that were required to pull it off bests any Hollywood caper film and it is all presented in intricate detail here. However, what makes the film sing is Petit himself who, through archival footage and recent interviews, recounts what the feat meant to him and his colleagues, all of whom were forever changed by this once in a lifetime act.
Petit was a street performer in Paris who, by all accounts, loves to challenge himself. Having walked on a wire between the two steeples at Notre Dame Cathedral and between two points on a bridge outside the harbor in Sydney, Australia were just warm ups for his grand achievement, which came to him while thumbing through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. An article detailing the construction of the World Trade Center in New York struck the young man’s fancy, but what truly captured his attention was a drawing showing what the structure would look like upon completion. The gap between the towers became a siren for Petit, calling him to bridge this gap at all costs. It was an obsession that would consume the young man, drive him to extremes of behavior he did not know possible and strain many relationships he had with those who chose to help him.
The documentary seamlessly interweaves archival footage of Petit in training, as well as in the throes of crossing the towers, and recreations of the meticulous steps he and his cohorts went through in order to infiltrate the buildings and secret up to the top of them the equipment they would need. These moments are interspersed with interviews done today of those who participated, each of them philosophical about their roles as well as proud of their participation in an act that all of them regard as beautiful and poetic.
In Marsh’s hands it’s easy to see why they regard Petit’s act as more than a mere stunt. Through film footage and still photos, we get a sense of the grace he employed in going back and forth between the towers (he went back and forth eight times over the course of 45 minutes) and also of the art that was created that day. Petit’s movements and stillness as he lays on the wire call to mind a man at peace in the heavens, defying the laws of nature and showing us that which appears impossible is only a problem that requires strength, perseverance and most of all faith to be conquered. There are no limits to Petit’s imagination and the optimism he displays in overcoming the many obstacles that stand in his way are inspiring in a real world way that can be taken to heart.
Man on Wire is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. While even that does not capture the true terror or wonder of walking on a wire 1350 ft. in the air, it does suggest a degree of majesty inherent in this act. However, as spellbinding as this achievement is, Petit himself is the real wonder. When he states, “If I die, what a beautiful death…to die in the exercise of your passion,” we do not question his sanity, but wonder at the way he embraces life.
Man on Wire is currently playing at Boardman’s Art Theater>