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Philippe Petit is alive.
Alive and quite well, in fact, nearing 60 but exhibiting the strength and enthusiasm of a man half his age. That in itself is a bit of a miracle, considering the myriad death-defying acts the French high-wire artist has pulled off over the past four decades.
“Man on Wire” focuses on his most dangerous and dazzling feat of all, the one that got him arrested and made him an international celebrity.
In August 1974, Petit walked across a wire that had been strung illegally between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the tallest buildings in the world at that point. But the word “walk” doesn’t even begin to do justice to his performance that day; it makes his accomplishment sound too pedestrian, if you’ll pardon the pun. Petit practically floated on air, 1,350 feet above Lower Manhattan, and he made it look effortless. Not only did he cross back and forth for about an hour, he also stopped to kneel on the wire and even laid down on his back, which will make your heart stop.
But he made it — and he’s alive. And the fact that we know he’s alive in no way depletes director James Marsh’s documentary of its suspense; Petit is such an impish, infectious storyteller, and he’s so obviously happy to narrate his own wild tale, he actually adds to the thrill. He’d obsessed over the World Trade Center towers for more than six years, even felt as if they were built specifically for him to walk a wire between them. As narcissistic as that sounds, Petit still makes you wonder: How in the world did he do this? He makes you perch on the edge of your seat, longing to learn more.
Again, the word “documentary” doesn’t begin to do justice to Marsh’s achievement. The British filmmaker was inventive enough to approach the material as if it were a high-stakes heist, with some elements of character study and even French farce thrown in for good measure.
That’s fitting, though, because Petit and his co-conspirators — a motley crew of friends and troublemakers from around the world — secretly and meticulously worked through every step of the plan as if they were robbing the bank. They even referred to Petit’s twin towers walk as “le coup.” Sitting in the audience, feeling as if you’re in on the scheme with them, is just one of the film’s many joys.
Or as Jim Moore, one of Petit’s key helpers in New York, put it so succinctly: “It just sounded like a really fun adventure.”
Petit has never been a shy individual, and so there is a ton of archival film footage and photographs from the planning and performance stages, which helps immerse us in this place and time. (It can also inspire a dizzying sensation of vertigo.) Marsh had to recreate a few moments in black-and-white, but rather then feeling forced or cheesy, they add to the excitement.
So much of Petit’s caper boggles the mind, such as the fact that the crew flew from Paris to New York with all kinds of cables and steel rigging equipment — even a bow and arrow. The way they sneaked Petit up to the top of one of the towers, then avoided the guards who could have had them arrested at any moment, is genius — and it produces some necessary hilarity to break the tension.
But Petit’s sky walk also harkens to a simpler, more innocent time. Certainly, none of this would be possible today; security is too tight and too pervasive in every segment of our daily lives. And that is the case because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001 — a date that never arises in “Man on Wire” because Marsh wisely realizes he doesn’t need to mention it. The absence of the towers — and the reason for their absence — is implicit throughout the film, which adds a level of unspoken yet inescapable poignancy.
At the center, though, is Petit, with his fearlessness and grace. He is a true artist with a rare gift.
Marsh, meanwhile, has masterminded his own work of art, and it is one of the year’s best films.