Directed By: James Marsh
Starring: Philippe Petit, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau
Tag line: "1974. 1350 feet up. The artistic crime of the century"
Trivia: The same story is covered by the children's picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2007) by Mordicai Gerstein
“Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge - and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope” - Philippe Petit
With its talking head interviews and archival footage, 2008’s Man on Wire certainly looks like a documentary, yet the manner in which director James Marsh presents the material makes it feel more like a crime thriller, relating the story of a master thief who, instead of money, stole the spotlight, and, for a brief moment, captured the attention of the entire world.
On August 7, 1974, French acrobat / tightrope walker Philippe Petit pulled off what seemed like an impossible feat. With the help of several cohorts, including good friends Jean François Heckel and Jean-Louis Blondeau, his girlfriend Annie Allix, and New York businessman Barry Greenhouse, Petit climbed to the top of the World Trade Center, stretched a high wire between the two towers, and then proceeded to walk across it eight times without the use of a harness or safety net. For Petit, it was the culmination of a dream, the final act in a play that required years of planning, and it made him an instant celebrity. The question he was asked most often in the days and months that followed was “Why”? For a guy like Petit, who had cheated death time and again on the wire, the only answer he could give was “Why not?”
By way of home movies (shot by Petit and the others), Marsh shows us the early stages of this grand scheme, and the preparation that went into making it a reality (in one scene, Petit sets up a wire in a small park in France, then has his friends shake it wildly while he’s on it, to ready him for the strong winds he may encounter during his historic walk). There’s a sense of excitement, even whimsy, in these sequences as Petit and the others formulate their plan, but the mood changes as the big day draws near. Feeling they needed outside help, Petit recruited David Forman and Alan Weiner, two Americans, to assist, much to the chagrin of Jean François (who didn’t trust either of them). Then, on the night of August 6th, the conspirators made their way to the top of the Trade Center towers (Petit, Jean-Louis and David in one building; Jean-Francois and Alan in the other), only to find guards were still patrolling the area. It’s the first of several problems they encountered, and by way of some slick reenactments (with actor David McGill standing in for Petit), Marsh successfully conveys the drama and tension of that fateful night, presenting it as if it was a well-planned bank robbery, and putting us smack dab in the middle of it all.
Then we have the stunt itself, which is nerve-wracking and beautiful all at the same time (knowing that Petit survived the walk didn’t calm my nerves as I watched it, and I had to look away when he laid down on the wire and gazed up at the sky). Yet as amazing as his accomplishment was, it’s Petit himself, so full of charm and energy, that makes Man on Wire such a fun movie, and it’s the joy he displays while discussing the endeavor that will stay with you once the film has ended.