Man on Wire
Featuring Philippe Petit, Paul McGill, and Annie Allix
Directed by James Marsh
1974 had already been marked by Hank Aaron's record-breaking swing, terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland, a coup d'etat in Cyprus, Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal. Within two weeks after Philippe Petit, the world would see Nixon's resignation, the botched assassination attempt of the South Korean President that killed his first lady, Evel Knievel's doomed Snake Canyon jump, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the Rumble in the Jungle.
But for 45 minutes on August 7th, Philippe Petit stopped the world for one morning and forced everyone in it to look up. Perched about a quarter-mile in the air, Petit delicately walked a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center.
He did it because it's what he did. Petit had previously scaled much smaller local landmarks throughout Europe and even in Australia, but once he saw newspaper articles about the construction of what was to become the world's tallest structures (at least temporarily), Petit knew it would be his destiny.
Man on Wire is a great documentary, full of life, humor, archival footage, and recreations bursting with authentic detail. But this is also, as Rich Cline from Shadows on the Wall points out, a great heist movie. You don't just throw a rope between the two buildings and hope for the best. Petit had visited the towers several times, sneaking onto the roof to examine the layout of the buildings so that he and a crew of over half a dozen people would know exactly what to do when the time came.
His confederates posed as workmen to break into the building on the night of August 6th, hiding in the shadows while security guards patrolled the highest floors of the first tower. And then, as the New York streets began to fill with workers ready for another day, they saw a Frenchman suspended by only a one-inch wide cable, as close to the heavens and as close to death as they'd ever seen anyone walk before.
Director James Marsh has spoken to everyone he could grab; most of the members of Petit's team consented to interviews, despite feelings of the event now that are obviously bittersweet. For reasons that make sense and for some that may not, it's impossible for Petit and his friends to find a proper perspective for August 1974; he seems to have lost touch with nearly every one of them, and the explanation given is that it was just the end of their road.
There's a great bit of dialogue in Adaptation in which Chris Cooper explains to Meryl Streep why his wife divorced him after a car crash that should have killed both of them. "Because she could," he said. And perhaps it's the same rationale here, with Petit flirting with death and his friends so exhilarated and worried, that walking away from each other was all that was left. In its own way, their distance proves that you don't need to be 1,300 feet in the air to walk a high wire act with somebody; you can fall just as hard with your feet on the ground.
Man on Wire is the year's most entertaining and welcome documentary. In an age when we are again surrounded by evil, a society in constant search for answers and assistance, the tone of the day felt in the serious work of our filmmakers, here's a moment in time that stops the world and forces everyone to look up.