Masterwork on wire

Phillipe Petit’s inspirational and death-defying act, chronicled in James Marsh’s new documentary Man on Wire, still packs emotional punch 60 years on

Philipe Petit “dialoguing with the sky” in his 45-minute miracle above the New York City skyline.
Philipe Petit “dialoguing with the sky” in his 45-minute miracle above the New York City skyline.

On August 7, 1974, with the help of a few accomplices, an optimistic, puckish young Frenchman named Phillipe Petit strung a tightrope wire across the 200-foot gap between the World Trade Centre buildings and spent 45 euphoric minutes “dialoguing with the sky”—almost half a kilometre above the ground—until forced to stop by the police who threatened that he would be plucked off the wire by helicopter.

Now 60, his story has been masterfully retold by British director James Marsh’s assembly of interviews, enactments, Petit’s personal footage and photographs in the award-winning documentary Man on Wire.

Petit’s discovery of an article detailing the World Trade Centre’s imminent construction lead him to dream of one day walking between the two towers. A juggler, unicyclist and funambule by trade, Petit spent almost seven years planning what he called le coup, assembling an international team of adventurous comrades to help him, making frequent reconnaissance trips to New York City and even forging deals with inside liaisons to get false security passes and ID cards.

A natural performer and blatant lover of attention, Petit practiced on two other high profile wire walks—between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral in 1972 and over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973—as well as on models built in a field outside Paris before his piece de resistance in 1974.

Petit’s commitment and concentration intensified throughout the planning process and reached an almost manic level, the footage of him shown preparing for the act of his life.

Winner of the Jury Prize and Audience Award in the World Cinema: Documentary category at Sundance, Marsh describes the film as a “heist” movie and, on one level, it certainly is: reenactments of key moments of le coup are accompanied by suspenseful music and edge-of-your-seat storytelling (courtesy of an obviously pleased-with-himself Petit).

But the film is multi-layered, presenting an entertaining caper as its primary storyline while simultaneously depicting the power of an all-consuming passion; Petit’s desire to “own” the towers and his subsequent success alienated him from the very friends that helped him to do so, and the documentary has no qualms about depicting him as he is: a man with an obsession and a tendency to rewrite his past in a favourable light.

Fascinating interviews with the very lively—and very French—former friends and girlfriend of Petit give the documentary an immediacy and subjectivity rare to the genre and does away with the ubiquitous deep-voiced, invisible and overly-serious narrator, a character who would be out of place in this light-hearted company.

The climax of le coup is shown to the audience primarily in still photographs, but ingenious cinematography and the awed, emotional retellings of Petit and various onlookers recreate the event and mood exceptionally well, excitedly taking the audience to the literal and metaphorical height of the film.

Although the interviews make no mention of it, there is certainly a 104-storey elephant in the room. Though Phillipe has survived to tell his story, the towers that were integral to it have not.

Marsh, in an interview with the BBC in August, has he did not want to “infect” the story with mention of the towers’ destruction and he has chosen wisely. The story is not about the destruction of the towers, but focuses on their construction—Petit spends a great deal of time emphasizing his agony that “the object of [his] dreams had not even been built yet”—and the penultimate change they represented to him.

The film is about achieving the impossible. Annie, Petit’s former girlfriend and Albert, an accomplice, are moved to tears in their retelling of the event, and Petit himself seems in awe of what he accomplished so many years ago. His death-defying achievement borders on the supernatural—indeed, from the ground he appears to be floating in midair—and Petit looks his own mortality in the face contemplatively.

“If I die,” he said, “what a beautiful death!”

To defy death and all odds, all at once, is something few would attempt, but Petit’s certainty of his success and indomitable joie de vivre are catching, leaving the audience inspired and humbled, mirroring the emotions of Petit’s original audience.

But the film is a warning about flying too high. Petit may have succeeded in the high wire walk, but he suffers an Icarian fall in his personal life, cheating on and inevitably ending his relationship with his girlfriend and abandoning his friends to their punishment (they are immediately expelled from the United States) while he walks free, enjoying the spotlight. The film closes with Petit, then 58, walking the wire in his old practice grounds, alone. He is concentrating as hard as he did that day at the top of the world, but this time there are no friends to help him reach it.

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