(2008) dir. James Marsh
viewed: 08/08/08 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA
The title of the film “Man on Wire” comes from the police report that detailed the arrest and description of the public nuisance charge perpetrated by Philippe Petit in August of 1974. Simply descriptive but cannot begin to capture the enormity of the feat that Petit executed with the help of friends and collaborators. Petit and his team snuck into the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, strung a high wire across between the buildings, and Petit crossed the wire, at the insane heights of the then tallest buildings in the world, performing his simple and elegant highwire act, even laying upon the wire, hanging above the world.
It must be said that it doesn’t sound like the most compelling topic for a feature-length documentary, but the film is constructed with the power of the narrative, from Petit’s earlier highwire stunts to the collaborative adventure that drove his friends and colleagues to help attempt one of the most amazing stunts of such sort ever perpetrated. The narrative grows, particularly through the vivid storytelling of Petit, and the beauty of the idea and the passion and the execution eventually becomes quite palpable.
The act, which is compared a few times in the film to that of a bank heist, is acknowledged as criminal by the crew, but recognized as also one in which no one is harmed, rather an act of performance and grandeur is perpetrated. Which again sounds potentially insignificant, but the immensity of the act and the artistry of Petit’s athleticism is strong.
But what makes the film resonant beyond the history and the grandeur of the achievements is the very backdrop of the event. The now long-gone, and far from forgotten towers loom throughout the film. It is when Petit first hears of their construction, when the work is just initiated on the structures, that Petit is inspired to accomplish his strange goal. The builidings speak to him, even from before they existed.
But the invasion of the building, the infiltration with all the equipment, while the building was being utilized yet still under construction echoes of the ultimate events perpetrated on the same structures. Petit and his team run against harrowing odds to accomplish their infiltration and execution of the stunt, but yet they run into far fewer, smaller problems than one could imagine. It’s not just the invasion and vulnerability, the heist of sorts, but the contrast in human aspiration behind the invasion.
Petit is not merely an artist. It’s not merely performance. While the cops and media keep wondering aloud to him as to “why” he did what he did, he has no answer. It is someting, something of human achievement and artistry, something bizarre and dangerous, radical and risky, something that is in a sense indescribable.