The Twin Towers, when they stood, seemed to embody the quintessentially modern gesture, an immense imposition of vertical order and rationality over the anarchic horizontal bustle of Manhattan. It’s hard not to read too much into the culture which could produce such an unsubtle, but architecturally stunning, gesture - such a feat of either capitalist pride or arrogance, depending on one’s point of view. But what then are we to make of Philippe Petit, who, on August 7th, 1974, snuck atop the Towers and walked a high-wire over 1,350 ft. in the sky? Petit’s act both transcends and makes a hash of the Towers’ engineering marvel and whatever ethos was behind it, seemingly to remind us that no matter how daunting our creations, they will always be surpassed by the atomized human spectacle.
But maybe such readings are unnecessary - it’s certainly possible that Petit didn’t consider himself any kind of transgressive; rather, possessing a very French kind of irreverence, he just enjoyed the sensation of walking through the sky. Man on Wire, James Marsh’s charming documentary on the subject, seeks to affirm either view by reconstructing the considerable feat of planning and executing Petit’s skywalk. Marsh cuts archival footage of Petit and his cohorts, including then-girlfriend Annie Allix and lifelong friends Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-Francois Heckel training for and orchestrating “the coup” as well as Petit’s high-wire walks between the towers of Notre Dame and the Sydney Bridge towers, all acts that somehow combine the high-risk stunt with public artistry.
Marsh cleverly combines real footage of the team and interviews with cute dramatic recreations which give life to Petit’s own buoyant narration, which itself reveals the zesty, exuberant personality of the man so well that it could’ve comprised the film by itself. The accounts of Petit’s team, disguised as construction workers, sneaking into the newly-opened Towers with tons of equipment, almost give Man on Wire the air of a heist film. It was truly a remarkable combination of luck, design, and skill that got Petit onto the highest wire of all time, and watching it all come together gives one a sense of hope and serendipity for reasons I can’t put my finger on; Petit is like an anti-terrorist (and what a metaphor that would turn out to be), committing illegal acts which harm no one, but somehow inspire feelings of human transcendence.
And really, other than the pants-wetting spectacle that is Petit traipsing through the heavens, it’s the personality of the man that gives the film this kind of glowing effervescence. After he finally steps off the wire and is arrested by gaping port authority officers, Petit is continuously hammered by questions, of the American analytic why? -to which there’s no real answer. And in the spectacular reverie and media-frenzy which naturally followed Petit’s skywalk, Man on Wire takes an unexpected somber tone as its hero engages in a humorous fling (literal jouissance!) and then confronts the friendships and romantic relationships built around the stunt coming to an end. This human drama completes the film’s arc of triumph in an impressively mature manner.
The fact that 9/11 and the Towers’ crumbling is never mentioned may seem a bit naïve to some, Marsh not wanting to taint Petit’s achievement with this horrible coda, but from a narrative standpoint it makes sense. It was important for both film and story not to veer away from such a spellbinding original act committed for no other reason than, in Petit’s own words: “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).
Man on Wire / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | November 19, 2008 | Comments ()