Wednesday, December 10, 2008


James Marsh’s spellbinding documentary MAN ON WIRE (****) is the sort of film that leaves you feeling queasy, enthralled, and alive. Queasy because of how insane the film’s subject – Philippe Petit – is. Enthralled because of how daring Petit was to do what he did. Alive because the film acts as a celebration of life. Petit, for those of you not in the know, pulled off what many people consider to be the “artistic crime of the century.” In 1974, he, along with a group of friends, attached a wire from one World Trade Center building to the other, and tight-rope walked back and forth between the two buildings. Eight times. Over the course of 45 minutes. In this staggering documentary, which has cleverly been constructed by Marsh like a first-rate Hollywood thriller, the viewer is treated to video footage of Petit doing numerous other tight-rope walks (in Paris, London, Sydney) and practicing for his endeavor in NYC. Some may think that Petit is ill. Some may think he’s simply eccentric, a guy in love with life, unafraid of the deathly consequences that his obsession carries. Others will think he was a guy with a death wish. And who knows, all of those scenarios could be true. It’s baffling to me that Werner Herzog, the wild-man filmmaker that he is, didn’t get the rights to this story; Petit is as Herzogian a character as there could ever be. In its quietly haunting way, MAN ON WIRE becomes something extremely special: a documentary that could never be made into a feature film while still retaining its power and illumination.
Petit, who is considered to be one the first widely-known and publicly accepted street performers in Paris (he juggled, danced, tight-rope walked), is such a distinct character, that everyone else around him, no matter how interesting they are in their own respects, pales in comparison. During the course of the film, we’re introduced to all of his friends and accomplices, who divulge information about their scheme and about Petit in general. Jaw-dropping footage of his other tight-rope walks is shown throughout the film, with footage from a high-wire walk in Sydney being the most insane. Petit didn’t just walk on the wires; he would lay down on it, bounce on it, dance on it. When he got the World Trade Center, he knew it’d be the crowning achievement of his career. Marsh shows TV interview footage with Port Authority Police Department Sgt. Charles Daniels, who was sent to the roof to bring Petit down; here’s an excerpt:

“I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....everybody was spellbound in the watching of it”

Yeah. You could say that again. The way that Marsh amps up the tension using his framing device for the film is extremely clever, very stylish, and eerily subversive. The film takes the form of a terrorist thriller. You see Petit and his men infiltrate the World Trade Center, wearing fake disguises and showing phony paperwork to gain access to the roof. Of course, after 9/11, this story takes on greater significance, and there is a mournful quality to much of the footage we see of the World Trade Center being built. It will be impossible for us to look at photos and footage of the World Trade Center without thinking of 9/11, something that Marsh knew full well before setting out to craft this engrossing documentary. Never exploitive, Marsh brings a soulful quality to the film. It must’ve been a tricky balancing act (no pun intended) to figure out how to structure this film due to the recent real-life horrors from seven years ago. However, I wish Marsh had asked Petit about how 9/11 affected him. It’s clear from the film that Petit was in love with the World Trade Center, that it represented something to him, something of great significance.

There is something so thrilling, so inherently watchable about MAN ON WIRE that I can’t quite come up with the right words to adequately describe the feelings I had while watching this film. Full disclosure: I am petrified of flying and I am not a fan of heights. So my stomach couldn’t help but do somersaults while watching some of the footage shown through the course of MAN ON WIRE. My only complaint is that nobody, for whatever reason, decided to film Petit’s walk across the World Trade Center. They snapped lots of still photos, but why weren’t they filming it like they filmed his other death-defying acts? When asked why he did it by reporters, Petit, ever the showman, said there was no reason why. He did it because he felt he needed to. He felt compelled. He thought that the World Trade Center had been built so that he could walk in between them. Delusional? Maybe. Ballsy? Definitely. There is a reason that MAN ON WIRE has been winning all of the awards that it has been nominated for – it’s an incredible piece of work. If it doesn’t win the Oscar for best documentary I’ll be shocked. Granted, this year has yielded some of the best docs in recent memory; ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, YOUNG@HEART, and BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER have all been as good (or better) than most feature films have been in 2008. But MAN ON WIRE is the genre topper, a film that literally has the power to take your breath away. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the best films of the year.

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