A daredevil, by definition, defies death. He cheats the Grim Reaper at his own particular brand of bluffing. This also means, by reciprocal inference, he or she embraces life. Granted, it does appear to be a contradictory condition. By pushing the very limits of existence to the points where you could end it, one looks to be laughing in the face of mortality. It’s seem the very definition of a fool’s paradise. By his very giddiness alone, wire walker Phillipe Petit would be the perfect illustration of this ideal. He sees nothing wrong with finding a location, stringing up a line, and doing his risky, refined dance with destiny. And he worships the moment as he does it.
As the subject of James Marsh’s brilliant documentary Man on Wire, Petit proves that there can be joy in doing what others would consider to be insane. Less of a career overview and more a concentration on a single segment of the performer’s otherwise complicated madman modus, the main event here is the 1974 high wire walk between the then incomplete Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Reflecting a simpler time when almost anyone could infiltrate a major structure and display their Depression era hyperbole, Petit comes across as part shaman, part sham, all ego and even more enthusiasm.
Beginning in the streets of Paris as a clown, our hero first feels the flush of unusual fame when, using his circus skills, he walks across the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. Soon, he is down in Australia, doing something similar to a bridge in Sydney. By accident, he reads an article on the soon to be built World Trade Center, and immediately, the structure is all Petit can think about. He obsesses on it, drawing in a ragtag group of friends, conspirators, and well wishers in an attempt to realize his goal. During these sections March introduces our aging rogue’s gallery in a rather unique way. Each one gets their say, while a starkly lit portrait fills the frame. Soon, we see that there is a dual purpose to this posing. Some of his confidants are quite capable of helping. Others freeze in the face of potential dangers - like death, the law, etc. It’s like looking at a cast of players plucked from an asylum.
In fact, Man on Wire is less about the climatic walk (which we know will happen, since there is a movie being made about the event and the individual who accomplished it) and more about the intricate preparations and personal dilemmas everyone faced. Sure, there is some cloak and dagger as the crew runs into security just hours before the event. Equally thrilling is a sequence where a simple wire pull maneuver goes wrong, and ends up taking hours, the weight of the material making inch by inch progress almost impossible. Marsh does manufacture the necessary suspense, all leading to the stunning images of Petit suspended above Manhattan, his lithe body literally dividing the skyline in half. Oddly enough, there is very little moving footage of the event. We get to see actual scenes of Petit crossing Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. For the Twin Towers, however, it’s mostly still photography.
This doesn’t lessen the act’s impact though. Man on Wire makes the wise decision to not follow Petit’s other stunts (including walks involving the Louisiana Superdome and The Eiffel Tower). Indeed, the use of the now destroyed World Trade Center resonates in a way that makes anything else he’s done seem minor in scale or import. You can tell that Petit feels the same way. His face practically glows as he recalls the moment he left the safety of the building’s rooftop. There is so much happiness in his cherubic look that you can’t help but get caught up in the emotion. Petit may now be viewed as kind of an incomplete saint, but when laying on his back high above the street, balanced perfectly on the line, an anxious audience of New Yorker’s marveling at his chutzpah, all flaws easily fall away.
If there is a single missing element here, a minor moment that cries out from its MIA status, it’s a mention of the fact that Petit’s dream no longer exists. One can’t imagine that Marsh didn’t broach the subject of the 9/11 attacks with the artist, hoping to gain some manner of insight as to how he reacted to the sight of his biggest triumph tragically crumbling before his eyes. Maybe such a reaction is implicit in everything he says up to this point, but hearing (or just seeing) Petit’s take would be wonderful. Of course, the entire movie is practically a love letter to what the World Trade Center represented. Turns out, Marsh felt the beauty of what Petit did was so substantial that discussing the fall of the Towers would, in his mind, undermine its mythos. He’s probably right.
Frankly, such closure isn’t necessary. What we see in Petit, unlike the current crop of Mindfreaks, and Blaine-worthy conmen is someone who can actually capture magic in a moment. Without optical illusion, camera trickery, or media-aided bait and switch, this was a man who figured out how to string a cable between the two largest buildings in the world (at the time) and then step into said void. There was no publicity, no pay per view showboating. No netting or safety harnesses. Sure, Petit expected some response, but this act was not done to derive some manner of commercial or financial benefit. Instead, the wire walk remains the ultimate answer to the question “why”, the quandary anyone who teases death must deal with and defend.
And we are lucky enough to experience the explanation in all its vertigo inducing glory. Make no mistake about it - Petit’s accomplishment was so stunning at the time that even the police officers sent in to arrest him respond in awe-struck wonder over what they’re witnessing. It’s a reaction shared by the audience. No matter his impish charms, his naïve belief in the pureness of his motives, Petit maintains his bi-furcated façade. You’ll either love him or dislike him, but you can’t deny his moxie.
At one point, New York had a pair of concrete and steel monoliths that few outside the city thought much of. In fact, even the local citizenry thought they were an ugly eyesore. With a single act of death defiance, Petit put the World Trade Center on the map. He also endeared its image to a country who, as usual, wouldn’t recognize what they had until it was gone. While the Towers have fallen, Petit’s achievement lingers. Thankfully.