- Rated PG-13
All photos © Magnolia
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
ew Yorkers are famously blasé about even the most unusual occurrences, but on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, they were treated to a sight so incredible that even the most hard-to-impress residents of the boroughs were forced to stop and stare: A man, balanced on a wire suspended between the recently constructed towers of the World Trade Center, putting on a show for the building crowd below – kneeling, waving, bowing, dancing, even laying down.
Philippe Petit was that man, and his astonishing 45-minute feat of daredevilry is the focus of director James Marsh’s “Man on Wire.” It was one of the best-reviewed films of 2008. In a bit of cheeky self-promotion, Magnolia Films even issued a press release trumpeting “Wire’s” 100 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes and claiming it was the best-reviewed movie of all time. ) But this was a terrible year for documentaries at the box office, so chances are you missed out on seeing it. All the more reason, then, to pick up a copy of the just-released DVD.
Marsh, who made his directorial debut with the equally well-received 1999 documentary “Wisconsin Death Trip,” stumbled onto a filmmaker’s dream with Petit: Not only is his story just as incredible as its death-defying culmination, and not only did Petit maintain an unbelievably thorough film archive of his preparation for the WTC walk, but Petit himself is an ideal interview subject, almost vibrating with manic energy, passion, and humor. He’s obviously out of his damn mind, but that doesn’t make him unusual among subjects of documentaries – and unlike, say, Timothy “Grizzly Man” Treadwell, Petit is almost impossible not to like, no matter how many laws (or hearts) he breaks.
Given the wealth of material he was given to work with, Marsh wisely refrains from getting too fancy; “Man on Wire,” for the most part, weaves slowly but nimbly between reenactments, archival footage, and current interviews with Petit and his co-conspirators, following Petit’s story from his early wire walks (including slightly less incredible stunts at the Notre Dame cathedral and the Sydney Harbor Bridge) through the amazingly detailed planning and practices for the main event. It comes together like a good old-fashioned heist movie, with all the heightened drama you’d expect from “The Bank Job” or “Ocean’s Eleven” – right down to Petit and his team dressing up like construction workers to squirrel their way into the buildings’ uppermost floors, and narrowly avoiding discovery by not one, not two, but three security guards. And then, once they made their way to the roof, they had to get 200 feet of cable – with four rope “anchors” – secured between the towers. And then…well, you just need to see it, obviously.
For the last seven years, our memories of the World Trade Center have been tainted by a horribly violent act – the repercussions from which have filtered down in ways both expected (endless war) and not (the digital removal of the buildings from movies such as “Spider-Man”). It is because of this that “Man on Wire” is something more than just a beautifully made, instantly gripping documentary. Petit’s feat, achieved for no other reason than to celebrate the beauty of the indomitable human spirit, reminds us that those towers once stood as reminders of our power to break barriers and challenge new frontiers. For 45 minutes – and, clearly, years afterward – Petit showed us that a dream, no matter how risky or dangerous, is often its own reward. It’s an important lesson, but one that’s obviously easy to forget, and “Man on Wire” is a stunning reminder.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Those who saw “Wire” in theaters may be tempted to purchase it just so they can watch it again whenever the mood strikes; fortunately, it comes with three short extra features – and they’re worth watching, too. The first is a 20-minute film, created in 1973 by director James Ricketson, that follows Petit’s Sydney Harbor Bridge walk. Even though the stakes weren’t as high as the WTC stunt, it’s still thoroughly engrossing. You also get an additional 12 minutes of interview footage with the irrepressible Petit, as well as “The Man Who Walked Between Two Towers,” a 10-minute animated short, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal, that recounts Petit’s adventure for children.