In a well-known historical moment on Aug. 8, 1974, Richard Nixon went on TV to resign the presidency.
The day before, much less well-known before now, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit walked a high-wire strung between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. Petit’s feat, “the artistic crime of the century,” is now put on display in the monumentally affecting documentary “Man on Wire.”
Director James Marsh blends archival footage and photographs of Petit and his accomplices with new interviews and clever re-enactments. The result is a work structured much like a heist film. In fact, Petit’s friends say infiltrating the towers and executing the illegal set-up excited Petit almost as much as the high-wire stunt itself.
“Stunt” is actually the wrong word for what Petit performed in the Manhattan sky. For almost an hour, the 24-year-old embodied a visual poetry 1,350 feet up. He crossed the void eight times.
It wasn’t the first time Petit had attempted to traverse a public space. In 1971 he walked a wire strung between the towers of Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, and in 1973 he conquered Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. Both events, captured on film, form part of the narrative here.
One of the oddest facts to emerge in the documentary is the cast of characters who helped Petit’s dream materialize. At Petit’s side was his lifelong friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, who knew how to rig wires. But beyond this trusted friend, Petit’s circle of co-conspirators seems to have been remarkably green.
One or two were attracted simply by the adventure or daring of it. As one accomplice put it, Petit’s plan “was against the law, but not wicked or mean.”
Several Americans were recruited to pull off the job, with one being the “inside man” at the World Trade Center. But with language barriers, unplanned-for guards on tower duty and at least one conspirator hooked on dope, it’s amazing that even eight months of on-site planning resulted in a successful walk.
Petit, who speaks English fluently and now lives in New York, relives everything in wonderfully animated fashion: dreaming of the walk even before the towers were built; building and practicing on a mock-up in the secluded French countryside; spying on the towers and their human routines; and the walk itself. The film is actually based on his book, To Reach the Clouds.
No mention is made in “Man on Wire” of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Viewers will nevertheless feel the tragedy as a gloss on various parts of the film, like shots of the towers being constructed, or when the NYC cop who got Petit off the wire told reporters he felt he was seeing something no one would ever see again …
Given the intimacy with which the towers are shown, one might anticipate a pall hanging over the piece, but the opposite is true. Petit’s moment between the towers, as constructed by Marsh in “Man on Wire,” functions as an exquisite memorial to the landmark. Petit, married to a vision aloft, infuses the towers with joy and enchantment.
For 90 minutes, the towers are reclaimed, their stature toppled not by insidiousness, but by a wispy boy who couldn’t stay away.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and drug references.
Director: James Marsh
Cast: Philippe Petit; Annie Allix; Jean-Louis Blondeau; Jean Francois Heckel; Barry Greenhouse; David Foreman; Jim Moore; Alan Welner.
The movie’s official Web site is here.