Saturday, August 16, 2008

Man On Wire

Even if Man On Wire were solely a documentary about a tightrope-walking lunatic who decided it would be a good idea to walk across the space between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, it would have been a delightful success. In addition to the documentary, though, there is a fictionalized dramatic feature embedded between the interviews of the principal players in the adventure and the stock footage of tightrope walker Philippe Petit (there is also some stock footage of the construction of the twin towers, which in itself is fascinating) - a series of black and white vignettes showing how the team of adventurers gains access to the rooftops of both towers and manages to rig the wire that will allow Petit to complete what he refers to as “le coup.”

Petit’s story plays like high adventure in large part because Petit himself, the primary storyteller, is as energetic and animated a subject as documentary film has perhaps ever seen. (I’m speculating here, somewhat, as I have not seen every documentary ever made.) The story he spins is of how he and a group of friends and associates - some French, some American, and an Australian - plotted and planned a scheme to gain access to the roof of each tower of the World Trade Center in order to rig a cable that Petit would then walk across; and he tells the tale with such excitement and energy that he might well be a small child talking about his very first trip to the zoo or his first day at school.

The bits that are fictionalized drama are the ones that show the timeline of arriving at the World Trade Center, getting up to the top floor, waiting out security guards who seem like they will never leave, and getting onto the roof. The players who assist Petit in this part of the adventure are introduced with title cards that give each one a nickname, and the whole thing has a farcical element that reminded of the video for the Beastie Boys song “Sabotage.”

As these scenes unfold, Petit also describes his previous two tightrope walks on public structures - between two towers of the Notre Dame cathedral (while a service was going on inside) in 1971, and between two pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge (with traffic roaring by below) in 1973 - leading up to his August 7, 1974, walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, two buildings that he says he felt an immediate connection to as soon as he read that they were going to be built, as though someone had conceived of those towers the way they had done just so that he would have something to use for a stunt.

Despite the fact that you know what’s coming, that knowledge takes nothing away from seeing the footage of him walking across Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the stills of the eight walks in forty-five minutes that he made between the towers of the World Trade Center; and then there are the shots of Petit lying down on the wire, flat on his back, that render what began as amazing - a coup, indeed - into an achievement that is simply mind-boggling.

1 comment:

Shane M. White said...

I already was interested in, and planned on watching the movie, but after your comments - I know that I have to rush out and see it ASAP. Hopefully I can find one night this week to catch it.

Thanks for a good review that's going to force me to watch it!