‘Man on Wire’ Carefully Balances Philippe Petit’s Story

There is no “why” to Philippe Petit’s extreme tightrope walking sport, and James Marsh’s Man on Wire carefully balances the artist’s motive with his story.

“Once upon a time,” says Philippe Petit. “Now, that’s how you start fairy tales and actually, my story is a fairy tale.” That story culminates in Petit’s walking on a wire between the Twin Towers on 7 August, 1974. But, as recalled in James Marsh’s Man on Wire, the lead-up to that spectacular end was both Petit’s life story and a much broader context, both historical and immediate, a time recollected from so many angles that the reconstruction begins to feel like another sort of stunt. For Petit’s story, full of intrigue and hope, is not only his. Because it concerns the Towers, the documentary also walks its own thin line, over tragedy and transgression, remembering and forgetting.

The movie sets its historical moment elliptically. A television screen shows Richard Nixon, trying to explain away the first whiff of Watergate in November 1973. “I have never obstructed justice,” says the president, his image grainy and distorted. “I welcome this kind of examination because people want to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.” Next to the TV set, shadowy figures pack bags and crates full of gear, reenacting the preparations for the World Trade Center summit. The contrast is both plain and profound: if both Watergate and the wire-walking were technically criminal acts, one was abject and venal, while the other achieved a kind of weird, eternal poetry.

As the film recounts — at a peculiarly breathless pace — the concept came to Petit some six years earlier. In his dentist’s office, he says, he spotted a newspaper article about the construction of the world’s highest towers. Just 17 years old, Petit set about training for this most incredible walk, 1353 feet in the air, over a gap of 130 feet. “The object of my dream doesn’t exist yet,” he recalls, but he is sure, then, that the stunt is his calling. Split screens set photos of his childhood alongside the Towers’ construction, as if the two entities were destined to come together, each a fulfillment of the other’s promise. The film goes on to show Petit’s professional life as a series of preparations for this astounding conclusion, his high-wire walks between the towers at the Cathedral of Notre Dame and above the Harbor Bridge in Sydney — each sensational in its own right — framed here as practice runs.

In all his enterprises, Petit builds in and reframes the “criminal” factor. And in positing his achievement as more significant the diurnal rules that restrict mere mortals’ movements, he is not unlike Nixon — or other, more romantic outlaws — sure of his own rightness and disdainful of others’ limits (Nixon, as it happened, would resign the day after Petit walked on his wire). The difference between Nixon and Petit here seems a function of ambition: where the administration’s errors were grounded in greed as well as incompetence, Petit’s team, at least as motley as the president’s, aspired to art. They saw their work as inspirational, and cherished its success much like those passersby lucky enough to look up and see it.

Petit’s team comes up with a plan: during surveillance runs, he enters the building on crutches (“To a human being with crutches, the universe is his! The guards, nobody asks me for an ID, nobody says, ‘What are you doing here?'”), they transport the equipment on work elevators. For Petit, the subterfuge, planned and recounted, is thrilling, the almost-getting caught part of the tale’s frank deliciousness. Petit narrates hiding under a tarp while guards made rounds, his voice pinged with exclamation points. The film’s reenactment of the scene is shot in close-up and deeply shadowed, evoking tensions and spatial dislocations. “We are frozen,” says Petit. “We don’t breathe!” A figure passes at a distance: “The noise was very confusing. You don’t hear him for 10 minutes, then all of a sudden, you hear him coughing or the talkie-walkie noise!”

Repeatedly, the film rolls with Petit’s excitement and anticipation. Though you know how it turns out, the suspense is nearly palpable. Putting together still photos, talking head interviews, and archival news footage with reenactments and home movies, as well as a propulsive, “found” soundtrack (culled from Michael Nyman’s previous film scores, including The Draughtsman’s Contract, Drowning By Numbers, The Piano), Marsh’s film underscores the mix of fantasy and practicality that informed Petit’s work. Each stunt involves weeks devoted to research and logistics, the assembly of equipment and team members. And yet, each instance is also tinged with a sort of romance. When his longtime lover Annie Allix remembers meeting Petit, when she was just 20 years old, we see black and white footage of a back yard, and two very young faces engaged in mutual gazing. “He introduced me to his wire, a wire set up at the end of a garden. I would spend hours watching him walk,” she says, “He was beginning his life as a tightrope walker… We became inseparable.”

Her sense of enchantment helps to structure the film (especially in giddy montages of animated maps, on-site snapshots, or assorted high-wire acts, not to mention patently nostalgic shots of the newly erected towers). At the same time, the documentary acknowledges potential doubts and concerns. If Petit is relentlessly enthusiastic (“The fact that the wire-walking activity is framed by death is great because that means you have to take it very seriously”), other perspectives, including Allix’s, help to build suspense. For one thing, the planning and equipment for each event are daunting (the team smuggled almost a ton of gear to the top of the WTC in 1974, disguised as the construction workers who were still on site). For another, Petit’s obsession with the towers is alternately thrilling and maniacal. “He could no longer carry on living without having at least tried to conquer those towers,” Allix says, “because it felt like those towers belonged to him.”

Based on Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds, Man on Wire argues that the magic of the event was a function of multiple forces, from Petit’s confidence (some might say hubris) to the historical circumstances. Like Petit’s feat, the Towers’ very existence had to do with ambition and a desire to conquer, possess, and boast. If Petit is rational about the mechanics, he is resolutely philosophical about the motive — or its absence. When he met with reporters following the walk, he remembers, the first questions were typically “American”. He smiles, “I did something very magnificent and mysterious and I got a practical ‘Why?’ The beauty of it is, I didn’t have any ‘Why.'” Thus, crime is transformed into art.

RATING 8 / 10