From the Archives: Man on Wire (2008)

23 Feb

There is a moment toward the end of James Marsh’s documentary feature, “Man on Wire,” when our high-wire impresario protagonist Philippe Petit utters the words: “Life should be lived on the edge of life” – at once so perfectly and profoundly encapsulating the very essence of this mesmerizing story of the power of dreams and the pursuit of the impossible. Upon his arrest after completing the “artistic crime of the century” by tightrope walking between the newly constructed twin towers of the World Trade Centre in August 1974, Philippe recounts how he was met with one question: “Why?” His simple retort – “Why? There is no why,” cheekily dismissing the question as “very American” – portrays a virtuous frontier spirit that is as admirable as it is foolhardy. That said, Philippe is a rare breed, and his enthusiasm for his performance is little diluted 34 years on and that in part is what makes his story so fascinating and relevant.

Marsh recounts Philippe’s story with narrative from he and his ragtag team of collaborators who came together to achieve the incredible feat of planning, rigging and completing the walk, interspersing the story with archive footage of the construction of the World Trade Centre and recreations of the entire clandestine operation. This directorial approach is a resounding success, making for gripping and evocative viewing, whilst an insight into Philippe’s “discovery of the wire” (including earlier walks at Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge) goes some way to explain his inherent drive to challenge the impossible.

And it is his excessive and creative nature that is so captivating and inspiring, so enamored is he with not only the beauty of the walk, but the excitement of realizing his criminal plan, even going so far as labeling the walk as “le coup.” In addition, Marsh draws some interesting parallels between Philippe and the twin towers, suggesting that they both extol the same virtues of individuality and extravagance. Just as Philippe seeks out the bigger, better challenge, even willing to die “a beautiful death” in doing so, the World Trade Centre too represents the fundamental human desire to go further, bigger, higher.

The build up to the walk itself is incredibly tense, as months of meticulous preparation are jeopardized by errant security guards and internal friction, although Philippe tempers the tension with his humorous recollection of some uncomfortable hours spent hiding under a tarp in a bid to avoid detection on the eve of “le coup.” The walk itself makes for breathtaking, heart in the mouth viewing, as stunning archive photography of his performance inspires a profound sense of release as he finally realizes his ludicrous dream.  Philippe’s Gallic charm shines through as with a smile on his face he kneels on the wire to salute the gathering crowd in a truly magical and beautiful moment.

Of course the poignancy of the performance is heightened given the terrible fate of the twin towers, but Marsh avoids any mention of 9/11 in “Man on Wire,” and rightly so. After all, this is Philippe’s story and he’s an inspiration; a 20th century Magellan, a trailblazer, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre his Everest. It’s a remarkable story of the power of the human spirit, masterfully realized, beautifully executed and crucially expertly told.


(originally featured at on 11/08/12)

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