By Matt Singer
[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]
As a boy, Philippe Petit enjoyed climbing things. Many boys do. But Petit never grew out of it, the way many boys do, and when he learned about wire walking, he found his calling in life. When he heard about a pair of towers being built in lower Manhattan even though they were still years from completion, even though he’d never been to America, even though the very act was sheer suicide he immediately decided that someday, he would walk on a wire at the top of the World Trade Center.
His journey to accomplish his goal is the story of the documentary “Man on Wire,” and we know that it ends happily because we see Petit as an older man, recounting and reenacting his story with the sort of boundless enthusiasm a person must have if he is going to sneak into a heavily guarded landmark and perform an audacious and incredibly dangerous crime in the name of art. The fact that Petit obviously survives could potentially sap the suspense from the documentary, which has the structure and tone of a lighthearted heist film. But those sorts of considerations fall away whenever Petit gets up on a wire hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. The sight of him balancing on this tiny rope without a care in the world is enough to make the steeliest of nerves jangle and the steadiest of palms sweat.
Petit’s excitement is contagious enough to convince everyone around him to help with his caper. I’d never do anything this illegal, nor, certainly, this dangerous. I don’t understand the allure of doing what Petit did and I don’t necessarily see artistry in his quest. Yet I can’t deny that his enthusiasm won me over; the man really does have what one of his conspirators describes in he film as “the pitching skills of a timeshare salesman.”
Director James Marsh (“The King”) has a bit of a tightrope to walk of his own. To Petit, the Twin Towers meant hope and excitement and wonder. To many people, especially in New York, the destruction of the buildings on September 11th redefined them with a whole new set of darker meanings and associations. Marsh never directly addresses 9/11 and we never get to hear Petit’s reaction to that day but Marsh begins the movie by juxtaposing images of his subject’s childhood with archival footage of the WTC being built. After seeing nothing of the Trade Center but its destruction for so many years, there’s something uniquely poignant about watching the care that went into its construction. At a dedication ceremony, an official promises that the Twin Towers will promote “harmony and communication between the nations of the world,” an ironic statement now, but one that Petit’s illegal, reckless and jubilant act affirmed.
As I watched Petit risk life and limb to traverse the summit between the two tallest buildings in the world, I kept asking myself, “Why? Why would anyone do this?” As Marsh shows us, after Petit’s performance, that’s what the entire country wanted to know. They were understandably mystified when he revealed that, in fact, there was no reason. Americans, Petit chuckles, always want the concrete and my initial reaction only supports his stereotype. “The beauty of it,” he says, “is I didn’t have a why.” Until I saw “Man on Wire,” I would have been just as confused as the public was in 1974. But upon seeing the documentary, and feeling the very visceral reaction I had to the images of Petit 1300 feet in the air on that wire, audaciously smiling in the face of death, I think I have a better understanding.
[Photo: “Man on Wire,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]
For more on “Man on Wire,” check out the official site here.