'Man On Wire': Defying Gravity And Time

'Man on Wire' i i

Philippe Petit's stroll through the Manhattan skies took place more than 1,300 feet above ground. Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris Images
'Man on Wire'

Philippe Petit's stroll through the Manhattan skies took place more than 1,300 feet above ground.

Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris Images

Man on Wire

  • Director: James Marsh
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 90 minutes

Rated PG-13: In addition to acts of daring, some nudity and drug usage is featured.

Philippe Petit i i

Art for art's sake: "I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a 'why?'" Petit says, "and the beauty of it is that I don't have a 'why.'" Magnolia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Magnolia Pictures
Philippe Petit

Art for art's sake: "I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a 'why?'" Petit says, "and the beauty of it is that I don't have a 'why.'"

Magnolia Pictures

The famous American male daredevils — the Evel Kneivels, the test pilots — carry a macho vibe; when I see them interviewed, I often get a sense they're still trying to prove themselves to their dads.

But the Frenchman Philippe Petit has a different aura. He's the guy who in 1974 walked — and danced — on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, 110 stories above ground.

When it was over and he was taken down in handcuffs, American reporters pressed close to ask him why. In James Marsh's exhilarating documentary Man on Wire, Petit, now in his late 50s, still can't get over the absurdity of the question.

In Man on Wire, Marsh asks not why? but how the hell? He tells Petit's story like a heist picture: part talking heads; part period footage of Petit honing his balance and pulling off lesser — but still breathtaking — stunts, like a walk over the Sydney Harbor Bridge; and part Mission: Impossible-style re-enactments.

Those re-enactments are stylized, obviously fake, but they're edited with such urgency they snap right into place. They're bridges to the main event, the "coup" as Petit calls it, which we get to see from many angles.

What follows are two threads: the building of the World Trade Center, in footage from the '60s, magnificent, awesome, deeply sad; and Petit's idee fixe — magnificent, awesome and deeply egocentric — that the towers are being created for him.

Petit had a girlfriend at the time, who says, "Each day is like a work of art to him." He talks in the film of seizing the space, defying society's soul-killing laws, defining oneself through action.

Very existentialist, very inspiring — unless you're driving under the Sydney Harbor Bridge and a guy falls through your roof and you die. Part of me says, "We can't permit people to endanger themselves and the public."

The other part says, "Wow."

There's a long-distance shot of Petit on that Sydney bridge in which you can't see the wire: He looks as if he's walking on the air.

There's another shot of him suspended between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral: Inside, priests are prostrating themselves before the altar, unaware there's a man above them swaying on a tiny wire, juggling.

The Trade Center scheme involves cohorts from several continents, figuring out how to shoot a steel cable from one tower to the other, rocking the wire to simulate the wind while he practices in a field.

And then comes the day and the night and the day, which I won't spoil. It's funny, though, that at the same time Petit is going up, Richard Nixon is coming down.

It goes without saying — and happily, Man on Wire doesn't say it — that all this took place in a more naive time, that the notion of foreigners with fake IDs slipping past guards into the Twin Towers has a different meaning now. So does the prospect of falling from the top.

The most miraculous thing about Man on Wire is not the feat itself. It's that as you watch it, the era long gone, the World Trade Center long gone, the movie feels as if it's in the present tense. That nutty existentialist acrobat pulled it off: For an instant, he froze time.

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