James Marsh’s spellbinding documentary Man on Wire is the sort of film that leaves you feeling queasy, enthralled, and alive. Queasy because of the physical insanity demonstrated by Philippe Petit. Enthralled because of how daring Petit was to do what he did. Alive because the film acts as a celebration of life. Petit, for those of you not in the know, pulled off what some people consider to be the “artistic crime of the century.” In 1974, along with a group of friends, he attached a wire from one World Trade Center building to the other, and tight-rope walked back and forth between the two buildings. Eight times. Over the course of 45 minutes. In this staggering documentary, which was expertly constructed by Marsh like a first-rate Hollywood thriller, the viewer is treated to video footage of Petit doing numerous other tight-rope walks (in Paris, London, Sydney) and practicing for his endeavor in NYC. Some may think that Petit is ill, a man with a certain death wish. Some may think he’s simply eccentric, a guy in love with life, unafraid of the fatal consequences that his obsession carries. And who knows, all of those scenarios could be true. It’s sort of baffling to me that Werner Herzog, the wild-man filmmaker that he is, didn’t get the rights to this story, as Petit feels as Herzogian of a character as there could ever be. In its own quietly moving way, Man on Wire becomes something extremely special: A testament to the power of one’s faith in themselves and the people around them, and how the most challenging of ideas can be realized if you have the drive and passion to accomplish it. Petit, who is considered to be one the first widely-known and publicly accepted modern street performers in Paris (he juggled, danced, tight-rope walked), is such a distinct character, that everyone else around him, no matter how interesting they are in their own respects, pales in comparison. During the course of the film, we’re introduced to all of his friends and accomplices, who divulge information about their scheme and about Petit in general. Jaw-dropping footage of his other tight-rope walks are shown throughout the film, with footage from a high-wire walk in Sydney being the most insane.
Petit didn’t just walk on the wire – he would lay down on it, bounce on it, even dance on it. When he devised his plan for walking in between the World Trade Center buildings, he knew it’d be the crowning achievement of his career. The way that Marsh amps up the tension using his framing device for the film is extremely clever, very stylish, and eerily subversive, as the film takes the form of a terrorist thriller. You see Petit and his men infiltrate the World Trade Center, wearing fake disguises and showing phony paperwork to gain access to the roof. Of course, after the world altering events of 9/11, this story takes on even greater significance, and there is a mournful quality to much of the footage we see of the World Trade Center being built. It will be impossible for us to look at photos and footage of the World Trade Center without thinking of 9/11, something that Marsh knew full well before setting out to craft this engrossing documentary. And because none of it is ever exploitive, Marsh brings out a soulful quality of New York that’s hard to describe in words. However, I wish Marsh had asked Petit about how 9/11 affected him, because it’s clear from the film that Petit was in love with NYC and the World Trade Center, and not to mention having a profound and lasting impact on his life. Maybe some questions are best left unasked? My only complaint is that nobody, for whatever reason, decided to film Petit’s walk across the World Trade Center. They snapped lots of still photos, but why weren’t they filming it like they filmed his other death-defying acts? In the end, what I loved so much about this film, and about Petit in general, is that this was a project that Marsh felt compelled to make, much in the same way that Petit just HAD to attempt what he did in NYC. He thought that the World Trade Center had been built so that he could walk in between them.