CAPTION: Yup, he actually did it…and lived to tell the tale.
The Best Laid Plans of Crazy Frenchmen…, 10 August 2008
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
…sometimes work as director James Marsh and subject Philippe Petit prove in the sublime and inspiring documentary, Man on Wire. Here we see Petit and his cohorts recklessly plan and execute the most daring stunt in the history of the world. In August of 1974, Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in NYC.
As part of Hollywood’s increased awareness of the possibilities of counter-programming, summertime has become a haven for documentaries. Thanks to Michael Moore and Al Gore, most of the blockbuster documentaries over the past few years have been in the form of political propaganda. By simply wanting to tell the story of one man’s amazing act, Man on Wire breezes into this summer like a breath of fresh air. The act depicted is singularly focused, but the logistics behind perpetrating the act are fascinatingly complex, and the aftermath of the successful completion of the act is breathtaking.
Director Marsh wisely avoids the typical trappings of documentaries by filming the story like a fictional narrative, jumping back and forth in time, shifting points of view, and creating palpable tension leading up to the death defying act of Petit walking across the wire. The film relies heavily on reenactments, and Marsh stages them like mini expressionistic student films full of stunning cinematography and wonderfully antiquated in-camera effects. The careful juxtaposition and blending of archival footage, still photography, reenactments, and interviews is a master-class in the school of film editing. Also adding to the film is the quietly tense music score composed of pieces from Michael Nyman and Erik Satie among others.
For those who never saw the Twin Towers of the WTC in person, the film shows beautiful archival footage of their construction. For those still haunted by their fall, the film offers a bit of catharsis as we get to watch them reconstructed piece by piece on film and lifted again on high through Petit’s potently mad dream. The film is as much a love letter to New York City as it is a testament to the power of one person’s vision. The film allows us to see how Petit did it, but it also gives a glimpse of the greater “why?” For beauty, for the thrill…for the sad knowledge that no one in the history of the world will ever be able to do it again.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:
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Enjoying your blog.
Good review of Man On Wire, one of my favourite films of the year so far. For me this decade should be remember most, film-wise, for the quality of documentaries made. Man On Wire approaches it’s subject with such dynamism and vitality it is impressive considering how little footage they had of the actual event. I’m filing it next to ’Fog of War‘, ‘Capturing the Friedmans‘, ‘Touching the Void‘, ‘Etre et Avoir‘, and ‘Grizzly Man‘. Fantastic.
James, thanks, I’ll be checking out your blog as well. I would also add Control Room to that list of great documentaries since 2000. –DHS
Hey David, thanks for your comment on my blog. I read the book about 7 years ago, completely taken in by the style of the writing and the event itself, unaware of how much had gone into it!! totally read like a thriller……unsure of what has happened to Petit inbetween.
really liking your blog, keep it up and best of luck till the next time.
Tris, thanks for stopping by. I might have to check the book out. I guess there is no way Petit could ever top what he did in 1974, but it would be interesting to see what he’s been up to besides writing the book and taking part in the film. –DHS
Don’t know Control Room, thanks I’ll check it out.
James, Control Room is about the AlJazeera news channel and looks at media propoganda and news reporting in general. It came out the same year as Fahrenheit 9/11 and was greatly overshadowed, but is clearly a more studious and unbiased look at some related events/topics. –DHS
I went to see Man on Wire with my mother and a friend, and after it my mother said simply “something like this will never happen again.” Meaning not so much that someone won’t try something death-defying or crazy like walking a tight rope somewhere or climbing up a building (matter of fact that still happens in Manhattan as recently as a couple of months back), but that this sort of situation- a man going across something as perilous and unique as the Twin Towers- is based in a film that preserves his story like so. Philippe Petit was already a tight-rope walker who did some crazy stunts (i.e. crossing Notre Dame’s stretch of space in Paris), but this was his crowning achievement which, oddly enough, didn’t quite get the kind of buzz the film might depict; the day of Petit’s walk across the towers, Nixon resigned from the presidency.
Just a simple profile on the man might be enough, and hearing this artist (however “French” he might get in saying that it’s like poetry, which maybe it is for all I know) is something to behold as a figure who sees himself as a rebel but not without some reason or in what he does. But Marsh’s magnificence is first to actually make us forget, just a second, that the towers are no longer with us; it’s never mentioned in the film that they’re gone, so the lingering absence is all the more troubling once remembered by the viewer. One is left with the purity of this on-the-surface stunt that becomes akin to a bank robbery to Petit, as he plans and spies on the site and forms a ‘crew’ to do the job of sneaking up to the top level and for three days continuing to stay elusive (even going under a tarp for hours on end with a co-hort to hide from guards) while attaching the cables- which also, at one point, nearly falls apart as a plan.
Then, second, Marsh reveals himself as good as a director of dramatization in a documentary I’ve seen since Errol Morris; perhaos even more daring with his black and white photography of what starts as a sneak-in (watch for fake sideburns on the actors), then transforms into a full-blown noir with beautiful lighting and exterior shots of the building and other angles that just stun the crap out of a viewer not expecting such artistry. In a sense Marsh is attempting something as daring as Petit, only by way of telling the story, however non-linearly, in a manner that should get his DP an academy nomination (if, of course, the academy ever got wise to nominate for cinematography for a documentary). And, on top of this, despite knowing partially the outcome- mainly, of course, that Petit lived to tell his tale to the camera as did his (once) friends and lover- it’s still thrilling and even suspenseful to see all of this buildup if one isn’t entirely researched on the details.
But it’s not just about the build-up and execution of that tight-rope walk, although when Marsh gets the chance to show his subject walking across this or other examples he puts it to beautiful, heart-aching music that transcends the material just enough. The man himself, and the people who knew and/or worked under him, takes up most of the time in the story. Petit is a curious fellow who can ramble like any energetic and, obviously, passionate Frenchman, and confesses how he’s always been a climber since a child and loves the aspect of showmanship when he can (when not wire walking, he juggles and rides a unicycle, a lovely if strange clown).
We also see his effect on others, like his friend Jean-Louis who co-planned the WTC project, and his lover Annie Alix who found him irrisistable and barely spent a moment worrying what would happen to him. And then there’s the assorted ‘characters’, like in any good noir, that spring up as entertaining and interesting both in present and retrospect form; even a guy with one of those *real* twirling moustaches comes forward and talks, as well as one particular member of the crew who spent 35 years smoking pot and also during the WTC job (Marsh has a wonderful way of sort of ‘introducing’ them as well, in a walk-in profile and name tag). Hearing them expound about the mechanics of the job, and of Petit’s personality and effect on them all, for better or worse as a kind of partially blind optimist, is also a major part of the appeal in Man on Wire.
While Marsh possibly leaves out some possibly intriguing details about Petit after this job ends (save for the immediate details about his sentence and a brief, Clockwork Orange-filmed ‘fling’ with a local girl), and here and there finding him or even the film pretentious isn’t out of the question, so much of it is alive and enthralling and even spiritual to a certain degree that I could forigve most of its possible faults. Just seeing some of that 8mm and film footage, shot at the practice sites, and the stills of Petit’s walk late in life, is something that’s hard to even put into words how to feel. I’m almost reminded of the wonder one feels when seeing the physically demanding art of Jean-Cristo, who also finds specific locations to pursue his craft. You can’t say it specifically, but you know it’s art, as is Marsh’s film itself.