Man on Wire

Dir: James Marsh, 2008. Documentary.
Man on Wire

“If I die, what a beautiful death; to die in the exercise of your passion.” - Philippe Petit

In his youth, Philippe Petit was drawn to climbing, fencing, and riding a unicycle. Balance was a gift, and motivation was endless. When he was 17, while waiting to see a dentist, he came across an article in the paper about two structures that were to be built in New York. The World Trade Center was to be the largest man-made structure, and within him developed a dream to conquer such a building in his own poetic way. Learning to walk a tightrope and gather close friends to help him reach his future goals, Petit set out to train, plan, and discipline himself to walk across a building that was yet to exist.

Before the object of his dreams was a reality, Philippe was consumed by its beauty. He had a fearless personality and those who were close friends felt inspired by it. He courted his girlfriend Annie fiercely and, with her by his side, pushed to master his new talent. The first building he and his friends set out to conquer was the Notre Dame Cathedral. After a year of planning, he and his friends got on the roof and secured their wires. A large mass was unfolding inside and was interrupted by the news of a man walking a tightrope above them. People and authorities gathered to watch a man walking back and forth on a rope, balancing on one leg, laying down, and juggling. He was arrested and put into a police vehicle, then transported through a sea of applause. This first performance was fitting; the illusion of his act makes it seem as though a man is walking along the heavens.

The group then traveled to Australia and designed a similar task along the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Once again, passerbys were captivated by his performance and determination, and again, he was arrested. When the group arrived back in France, he was panicked by the news that the Twin Towers were now almost complete. He calculated that there might still be as many as three months before it would be finished. This was the only window of time he thought he could use to break in, learn the structure, and come up with a plan to infiltrate it. Barry Greenhouse, a research worker with an office in the Trade Center, became a sort of saving grace as his inside man. Within a few months, they had a map of the building and a path to the roof. They understood the security system and need for identification cards, which they forged. They studied American businessmen and architects in attempts to mirror their mannerisms and dress, down to their sideburns and the pens they always seemed to have in their pockets. Once the preparations were complete, the group devised a way to pose as contractors and enter the building with a large crate, filled with various tools. After entering, they would then need to carry these tools up the stairs to the roof and wait in darkness until morning. With the help of a childhood friend, his girlfriend, and several accomplices, in 1974, Philippe executed what would be considered as the most artistic and poetic crime of the century.

Ethereal is perhaps the best word to describe the style of this documentary. Many questioned why news of the September 11th attacks were not mentioned, and the response was that it would squander the motivation and beauty that the film was meant to bring. Instead, there are wonderful segments that show archival footage of the towers being built, juxtaposed with Philippe coming of age and learning to tightrope. It makes it seem as though the two were meant to join and send a message of strength and wonder. When he walked between the towers, police and New Yorkers all confessed to news cameras that they felt as though they were seeing something impossible and important. Looking back, the group that helped Petit carry out his goal reminisces about a time of greatensity and uncertainty that turned out to be one of the most important moments of their lives.

The interesting thing about the documentary is that, aside from the footage of Philippe in his youth and the building he walked across, the rest of the film is shot in black and white and resembles a crime reenactment. This is due to the fact that when Marsh heard the story, it reminded him of a heist. The method turned what could have been an inspiring, yet ordinary film, into a tense thriller of sorts. Alongside the reenactments is Philippe's eccentric narration and interviews with those involved. Man on Wire was adapted from Philippe's book, To Reach the Clouds, and has since been turned into a children's book. It is a wonderful and truly inspirational tale of a man who saw himself as a poet and set out to conquer life in his own way. His efforts became a message of rebellion and urged many people to take control of their lives and go after their passions. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially artists in need of inspiration


Man on Wire won an Oscar for Best Documentary.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 25, 2011 11:41am
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