©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

Man on Wire

On a cloudy August morning in 1974, Philippe Petit could be seen from lower Manhattan streets walking to and fro on a wire stretched between the roofs of the two World Trade Center buildings. This slender documentary is a little jewel of a film that recounts the machinations behind the stunt, relying on talking-head interviews and filmed re-enactments to explain exactly how Petit and his band of accomplices managed to bluff their way into the still-unfinished buildings, sneak to the very top, and finally execute just about the most daring high-wire act imaginable.

Photo ©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

But what’s more interesting is what’s not spoken of, or depicted explicitly. For New Yorkers especially, any footage of the World Trade Center takes on a wistful quality — it’s easy, still, to be flabbergasted by the idea of the empty space that was once occupied by those two monumental structures, which seemed such an unchangeable fixture of the skyline. They evoke a special and specific kind of nostalgia for a slightly younger New York, one without the battle damage — that still-empty hole downtown left by their collapse.

In that context, Petit and his co-conspirators come across as beautiful, wide-eyed innocents. The highly animated Petit is depicted as a wild dreamer — by including footage of clandestine tightrope operations at Notre Dame Cathedral and Sydney Harbour Bridge, Marsh establishes not only Petit’s competence, which is obvious, but his ambition and passion. In the film, Petit himself recalls the almost inexplicable, because-it-was-there itch that got him thinking about the performance after he tore out a magazine page that included an artist’s illustration of the buildings, which seemed to him to have been conceived by an architect with just that purpose in mind — to string a wire from one to the next. To his dismay, construction had only just begun: “The object of my dream doesn’t exist yet.”

But before long the structures are erected, if not quite completed, and Petit quickly assembles a group of friends, confidantes, and acquaintances to help him live the dream. His efforts comprise necessary advance recon missions to scout out the territory, including a trip to the roof of one building to figure out just how the performance will be executed, as well as the nailbiting final nighttime ascent through empty floors patrolled by apparently unhurried security guards. Semi-comic inserts help us imagine what that operation must have been like — to skulk in the darkness through that massive, unfinished steel infrastructure, nearly a quarter of a mile above the New York streets.

Just as Marsh’s strategy starts to wear thin, the sun rises, the wires are secured, and Petit steps out into the sky, balancing high above the city. It’s here that Man on Wire really soars — Marsh’s interviews coalesce with vintage images of Petit’s actual performance (and, on the soundtrack, Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1”) into a celebration of athleticism, architecture, random beauty and crazy ambition. From below, we’re told, it looked as if a man were up there dancing on a cloud. And if we should wonder how that man could ever muster the courage to perform in such a dangerous location — if the sheer fact of the height doesn’t give you the creeps, what about the possibility for a rogue blast of wind? — well, Petit offers his own take on the possibility of disaster. “If I die, what a beautiful death — to die in the exercise of your passion.”

It sounds a little manipulative, but in context the whole thing is surprisingly magnificent. The story and those final images are exciting enough, but some subtext sneaks in, too. One recurrent theme has to do with Europeans’ perceptions of Americans — gentle bemusement mixed with a smidgen of distaste. Petit recalls that, after his arrest, news reporters bombarded him with the same query: why did you do it? For him, that’s a particularly frustrating question because it betrays a failure of imagination, or perhaps just a misguided practicality. (The film’s title is swiped from the police complaint filed against Petit, which described his transgression, simply, as “Man on Wire.”) It’s a just-the-facts attitude toward an endeavor that wouldn’t be supported or encouraged by too much logical thinking. Some of Petit’s associates did express fear for his safety during the stunt, but they seem to have known him too well to have expended any effort trying to talk him out of it.

Despite a bittersweet ending that sees Petit breaking his ties with some of the people who loved him, they don’t seem to regret the unconditional support they offered him back then, hoisting him up into the right hand of God. Human relationships, like those steel monuments he traversed, are majestic but impermanent. It’s that combination of great sadness and stunning beauty that helps make Man on Wire, finally, such a gorgeously affecting experience. A-

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