Sundance Review – JAMES MARSH’S “MAN ON WIRE”

manonwire_filmstill4-SMALL.jpgIn 1974, Philippe Petit committed one of the world’s greatest “art crimes”: walking across a tightrope strung between the then unfinished World Trade Center towers. It’s a gorgeously ephemeral stunt. Walking some 1,200 feet above the street, Petit was barely visible, and might not have been noticed if not for his own assistants looking up (and shouting with joy). And the very nature of the stunt is marvelous for it’s delicacy and subtlety–walking gently on a rope–magnified by the extreme height and the impending iconic status of the buildings. When he came down, arrested by police officers who recognized the wondrous singularity of what they had just seen, he was asked repeatedly: Why? “It’s such an American question,” Petit says. “I have done something extraordinarily beautiful. There is no why.”

[All quotations are paraphrases to the best of my memory and notes.]

James Marsh‘s inspiring documentary “Man On Wire” tells Petit’s story from his early days as an aspiring performer of circus arts, through his wire walks between the towers of Notre Dame and across the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and up through the lengthy planning and execution of his famous WTC walk. There is marvelous footage and photos from the early walks, but only still photos exist of the walk in NYC (I’ve heard contradicting reports about the cameraman’s hands being too tired from hauling the wire, and about the cameraman having to flee arrest before being able to film.) Yet in spite of this lack of footage, the still photos are truly gorgeous, and lend a mythical quality to the event. The film plays out with marvelous tension and drama, not unlike a bank robbery. In part the drama comes from the complexity of the operation: the practice, the trial runs, the planning, the costumes, the sneaking around guards with hundreds of pounds of equipment. With a tight team working stealthily, overnight, on a deadline, recounting the fascinating details of the story is mesmerizing.

But moreover the drama comes from the glorious sense of destiny Petit was aiming to fulfill. He tells us, in the film, that from the time he was a teenager, when he first saw an architect’s rendering of the towers, he knew he had to walk between them, to do something impossible and beautiful, something that was against the law, but not wicked or mean. Petit was so taken with that initial photo of the towers that he ducked out of a dentist’s appointment, “And so I still had a tooth ache, but what is a little pain compared to finally having my dream? Only the towers weren’t built, so the object of my dream did not even exist.”

manonwire_filmstill2-SMALL.jpgHe had to wait years for the opportunity to fulfill his dream, and Petit’s passion and energy are so palpable that, as I said, the tension is enthralling as we hear him and his team recount the tale. He knew the walk was tremendously dangerous, but was thrilled and calmed by the idea that he might “die in the exercise of one’s passion.”

Petit was just as charming and inspiring in real life, at the Q & A following the film’s premiere. When asked how he financed his stunt, he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what money is. And anyway, this was illegal; it doesn’t cost anything to rob a bank.” Also in the Q & A, he told us that he knew that his mission would be a success when he came to America and was stopped twice at customs. The first time, he had a suitcase full wire-walking equipment, but also items for magic tricks. The customs agent pulled Petit aside to search his bag, and Philippe was worried that he would get in trouble. But, in front of a long line of impatient people waiting for their flight, the customs agent pulled out the deck of cards, and asked Philippe to choose one. That the agent was trying his hand at magic instead of enforcing security made Philippe fall in love with America. Then, on his second trip, when he had all his equipment for the wirewalk, the customs agent asked him what he was going to do with all this stuff. Not knowing what to say, Petit tried honesty: “‘I’m going to walk between the towers of the World Trade Center,’ I told him. And he laughed so hard and said, ‘Yeah, right, good luck,” and let me through.”

Petit turned more serious when asked about how the events of September 11th affected him. “The towers were more than my friends, they were inside of me. I fell in love with them when they were born, when they came of age I married them. So when they fell, it felt like a part of me had died. Of course, it doesn’t sound right to say that when in fact so many people died that day. But I feel proud to have made that walk, and to have this film, so that the towers and all the people can be remembered with sadness, but also with joy and beauty and laughter.”

“Man on Wire” has indeed created exactly that, a poetic memorial and a stirring legend, and I hope that we can bring this film, fittingly, to the Rooftop.