Man on Wire

October, 2008, Drama

Directed by:James Marsh

Starring:Philippe Petit

Man On Wire

Police arrest-blotters are a suitable place for terse prose; in the late summer of 1974, one of New York’s finest used the title of this film to explain the arrest of one Philippe Petit. His crime? Stringing a high-wire between the Twin Towers and then cavorting along its hazardous length for nearly 45 breathless minutes. This gentle and thoroughly charming documentary tells how he managed to pull off that stunning feat and in doing so, director James Marsh delivers perhaps the best documentary of the year. 

Employing lots of vintage footage from Petit’s own archives interspersed with interviews of the stunt’s mischievous crew, Marsh explores the elaborate planning and preparation that went into the venture and the stealth required to pull it off. None of Petit’s support team appears especially felonious but no one makes the slightest apology for their participation either. The fact that each might be deficient in conventional good judgment doesn’t appear to have crossed their collective minds.

Petit himself emerges as a good candidate for membership in Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, that counter cultural, off-the-grid scrum chronicled by Tom Wolfe in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”. Petit exudes a child-like brazen self-confidence that mesmerizes even as you doubt his judgment in choosing a career - - can the thrill of his exploit possibly be worth the risk involved? He certainly thinks so, and the film celebrates his daring (and beautiful) demonstration by showing Petit gliding along, (and lying down on) his thick steel cable high above downtown Manhattan in the early morning hours of a Wall Street workday.

The preparation of necessary equipment and the subterfuge involved in smuggling the required materials and the team necessary to operate them into both buildings turns Wire into a caper flick presented in cinema verite style; detailed plans must be made, hiding places identified, watchmen outsmarted until darkness provides the necessary cover required to assemble the high wire, shoot it across with a bow and arrow and then attach the supporting struts to assure stability…the director’s ability to blend old footage with skillfully detailed re-creations and talking head commentary from the participants makes for a bracing examination of stunt so outlandish only its successful completion could have made it appear daring instead of fatally stupid.

Petit disappeared into obscurity after this performance, but Marsh has provided a timeless rebirth to his notoriety in this wry, pixie-ish film, which reaffirms the old cliché that some things must be seen to be believed.

The verdict? An incredible story, skillfully told - - and the best way to remember those ill-fated buildings…


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