“The artistic crime of the century”
Man On Wire
Director: James Marsh
The story is this: On the night of August 6th 1974 street performer and wire walker Philippe Petit and his team broke into top floors of the North and South World Trade Towers. The next morning Petit stepped out onto a wire that had been strung between the towers. For forty-five minutes he walked across the wire to the astonishment of onlookers on the ground until finally coming in and being taken away by police.
This is the intriguing subject matter of James Marsh’s documentary Man On Wire, the title taken from the description of the crime on Petit’s arrest report. Marsh starts the film with a richly shadowed black & white re-enactment of Petit and his cohorts in the van on their way to the towers for the final time with Petit’s narration over top. These beautifully staged and surprisingly eventful real-time re-enactments are interspersed throughout the film until the climactic step onto the wire. You immediately become hooked into this man’s character watching him walk between the towers at Notre Dame as Marsh delves in to Petit’s history but the re-enactments serve to keep up a pulse-pounding momentum throughout. As well as Petit’s emphatic description of every moment of this event Marsh interviews each member of his team, each of whom has a slightly different perspective on Petit and what he called “The Coup”. Pieced together from descriptions I couldn’t decide whether he was a genius or had serious mental problems. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because like everyone in this film I was in awe of him.
The centerpiece of this film is obviously the wire walk itself. After a few of the most nerve-wracking scenes in recent memory where nothing goes as planned we are finally treated to a spectacle I can only describe as sublime. Funny, as there is no actual footage of Petit on the wire, I was nonetheless awestruck. As Marsh employs Erick Satie’s beautiful piano music we look at still photos of Petit traversing this giant gap and his friends describe watching the spectacle unfold, some of which are moved to tears just by remembering it.
I will not uncover too many details about this film, but something that stood out to me after the wire walk was the barrage of American journalists assaulting Petit demanding to know ‘why he did it.’ and Petit’s insistence that “there is no why”. This scenario echoes to me feelings many have about art and those who don’t understand it. Why is it necessary when you see something sublime or beautiful to demand to know why it is that way? Later when Petit was asked why he did it he said “When I see three oranges I juggle; when I see two towers I walk.”
As for the looming question you may be thinking, 9/11 is not mentioned once in this movie. The shadow of that event hangs heavy in my mind when I watch this film and I think any direct reference to it would have been pointless. The movie is about Philippe Petit.
According to Petit’s girlfriend he would stay up late in the days leading up to The Coup watching gangster and heist movies on TV. I then realized this wasn’t simply a great documentary but also a great heist movie. In this film a gang of unlikely thieves break in to one of the most prestigious buildings on earth and are nearly discovered at every turn, but what is truly fascinating is what they stole. Costing great efforts and in some cases years of their lives what these people wanted was completely intangible, but at the same time more important than anything that was. It was this motivation that, for me gave this movie it’s heart and it’s charm. By far the best documentary and possibly even the best movie I saw of what 2008 had to offer. Go rent it right now. Incredible.
Great moment: In a frantic fit, Petit describes taking off all his clothes on the dark roof of the South Tower and searching for the fishing line his friends have shot across so he could feel it on his skin.