August 7th, 1974 is not a date which will stick in the minds of many people. Yet for anyone who looked skywards in New York City on that day, it’s unlikely to be forgotten. Philippe Petit, a French street performer and tightrope-walking specialist, picked that day to stage one of the most spectacular and seemingly impossible feats of entertainment ever performed. Petit, and a small group of friends, sneaked up to the roof of the World Trade Center towers, strung a cable between them, and the diminuitive Frenchman, balancing pole in hand, walked between the two gargantuan structures.
Eight times. Over 45 minutes.
The setup of the film is so incredible, so unbelievable, that it defies common sense and all comprehensible logic. But this is the entire point of Man on Wire: while it’s ostensibly a documentary about this astonishing artistic act, it also gives a huge insight into the mind of a born entertainer. Petit’s passion is unquenchable, his desire unstoppable, and his final achievement truly beggars belief – its hugely unlikely story is engagingly told and captivatingly captured.
Director James Marsh tells the tale through a combination of genuine home-movies made by Petit, his then-girlfriend and group of friends/accomplices, interviews with all the major collaborators and dramatic re-enactments of several key moments. This chronological cross-pollenation works wonders, turning what could easily become a recognisable exposition-type documentary into a suspense movie which, although we know its ending already, grips us and refuses to let go. The setup for the wire-walk is played out in black-and-white, the crucial moments depicted one by one, and chopped up to fit between the tale of the group’s beginnings, their friendships and in-fighting, and how in the world they came to actively support Petit in this act. The footage we see of Petit conquering the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Notre Dame in the first reel is all part of the wider setup, the director getting us ready for the knockout blow, and every voice we hear is that of someone directly involved. This immediacy adds to our fascination.
In one of the interview sequences, Petit tells us the genesis of his dream lies in a dentist’s waiting room; he reads an article about the construction of the Twin Towers, and knows instantly that he wants to, nay he must, conquer them. This may seem like the ravings of a lunatic, but when Petit tells us this tale, we are spellbound, and gradually realise that we’re buying into this idea as much as his friends did. Philippe is the film’s star without question, his interviews imbued with the kind of frantic energy we’d expect in a performer, his wild eyes and coruscating descriptions are magnetic, and the moment he steps onto the wire, we are truly in awe.
The other interviewees never offer Marsh this kind of reckless enthusiasm, but their views are just as important; the intricate details involved in getting into the WTC towers (a team in each) and attaching the wire to either roof are hugely entertaining and intriguing, from the fake wire constructed in a field to the fateful arrow which balanced the fate of the event on its point. For large parts, these stories – interspersed and dubbed over the rustic home movies – turn Man on Wire into a heist movie, albeit one with a goal which is so bizarrely fascinating it could’ve been the subject of a Werner Herzog film.
Of course, like all good heist flicks, the film is only as good as its finale. When Petit steps out onto the wire, his tiny frame minutely balanced a quarter of a mile above the earth, it’s impossible not to gasp in wonder. The photos taken from the rooftop are magnificent and truly defy belief, but the video Petit’s friends took from street-level is a real marvel, as it seems for all the world as if Petit is walking on air between the two titans of commerce that once reigned supreme over the Manhattan skyline.
Marsh’s film is a triumph of artistic flair, but also a documentary in the truest sense of the word. Free from a sappy finale or a hammered-home polemic, it tells a marvellous tale without offering too many of its own opinions. Yet it’s also a film about tragedy; the final series of interviews reveal that Petit changed immeasurably after that day he stood atop one of the world’s great cities, and his old friendships seem to have withered over time. The buildings Petit walked between are now more famous for being destroyed than for anything else, but Marsh’s camera shows their astonishing construction as it runs parallel to Petit’s dream of one day walking between them: both feats show that dreams can someday be fulfilled.
And when Petit finally reaches his goal, it’s impossible not to be utterly mesmerised.
Verdict: A real showstopper of a documentary. James Marsh has managed to combine elements of classic cinema with a remarkable, real story, and crafts a memorable film through his inventive editing technique. A story of desire, passion, espionage and undying ardour, Man on Wire is, quite simply, one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Marvellous.