MAN ON WIRE
Daredevil performance and stunt artiste Philippe Petit, a master of mime, juggling and, most famously, the tightrope, made headlines worldwide in 1974 for his high-wire crossing from one World Trade Center tower to the other. The sensational feat was the culmination of a breath-halting drama that had Petit and his cronies craftily evade Trade Center security and eventually bring to the towers’ highest floors and roofs the heavy cables and other equipment they rigged for the amazing stunt.
British director James Marsh captures all the excitement (and humor!) and much more to deliver a riveting portrait of the unusually obsessed, gifted, charismatic and downright gutsy Petit in Man on Wire. Marsh himself has shown his own gifts as a chronicler of the unusual and extreme in his early BBC doc The Burger and the King and the wonderful but underappreciated drama The King.
Winner of the Audience and Jury Prizes at Sundance, Man on Wire is both a stunning adventure and a study in the ultra-weird, as embodied by the driven hero. Petit, attracted to wire-walking at an early age, was possessed in his determination to one day pass between the Twin Towers alone by wire and without any kind of safety net or harness. He not only accomplished this feat but, in a taunt to the New York City police who worked unsuccessfully to rein him in, crossed multiple times before quitting.
The documentary very skillfully employs re-enactments, and leverages a wealth of home movies and archival material—stills and footage—to tell its story. Petit warmed up to his coup de grace with heart-stopping high-wire acts at the Sydney Harbour Bridge Towers and the Notre Dame towers in Paris. For his Twin Towers caper, Petit and his compatriots masqueraded as journalists to get past WTC security personal to case the buildings. In a crafty, spy thriller-like maneuver, Petit was even able to recruit a WTC insider—Barry Greenhouse, who worked on the 82nd floor of the South Tower.
Joining Petit in a merry, motley band of rebellious talking heads are a number of his co-conspirators—all benign renegades and nonconformists, including longtime pal Jean-Louis Blondeau, girlfriend Annie Allix, former rocker and pothead David Foreman, and defeatist Alan Welner, who bolted last-minute from the team. Tensions and suspicions within the crew that threatened the mission only add to the suspense.
On the romantic front, the doc makes clear that Petit’s all-consuming, life-threatening passion to scale and traverse sent important relationships by the wayside. His post-WTC status won him celebrity, but here he fell victim to celebrity excesses of the familiar kind.
A world wonder wrapped in a single body, Petit comes across as not merely daredevil extraordinaire but part poet, publicist, raconteur. One imagines him one day soon as host of the world’s most dangerous reality show.
Interestingly, the doc makes no mention of the tragic fate of the Twin Towers, except for a horribly ironic still of Petit’s crossing that shows a passenger jet flying uncomfortably close in the background.
Michael Nyman’s score is yet another pleasure on this exhilarating ride. Man on Wire will delight to the max all demanding filmgoers, especially acrophobes, who will be treated to special thrills and chills beyond the merely cinematic.
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