In 1974, French street artist Philippe Petit spent forty-five minutes cavorting on a tightrope 1,350 feet above New York City between the World Trade Center towers. Man on Wire recreates Petit’s absurdly dangerous (and very illegal) feat using archival footage, photographs, dramatic reenactments, and interviews.
Petit is an ideal subject, animated and gleeful; he relates the tale with childlike delight, gesturing manically, using props, and charming the camera. The people who helped him rig the wire, hide the equipment, and execute the walk were so obviously enthralled that your heart can’t help fluttering as they relive the experience. Even in still photographs, watching the small, lithe Frenchman balance precariously 1,350 feet in the sky, moments from a fatal free fall, is exhilarating and gorgeous-you’re basically watching someone walk on air.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 most Americans equate the twin towers with shock and anguish. The towers became a tangible symbol of defeat and grief, and because they were altered or removed from many films after the tragedy, they acquired an almost sacred significance: for a few years they became nearly taboo.
Man on Wire is one of the first studio films since 9/11 to touch upon what the Twin Towers were originally intended to symbolize: “harmony and communication between the nations of the world.” Petit’s motley crew of aides was American, French, and Australian, but their goal was the same: to illegally usher this crazy guy into a well-guarded skyscraper, rig a wire 420 meters in the air, and let him play on it. Ludicrous and bizarre as it must have seemed, they put aside cultural differences and language barriers and make it happen.
Previous films that touched on the twin towers focused on American patriotism and sometimes reflect an “us vs. them” mentality, but Man on Wire is, above all, optimistic. The confidence and joy Petit attaches to such an outlandish pastime is invigorating, and the sheer gall is mind-boggling. After Petit was forced off the wire by police, reporters converged, demanding to know why he would do such a thing. “There is no why!” he exclaims, but he feels it was “very American” to insist on a reason for doing something so alternately frivolous and treacherous.
Man on Wire won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2009, but I only got around to seeing it a few days ago. It’s really a pretty simple movie, and the dramatic reenactments leave something to be desired (for me, though well done, they’re remindful of Unsolved Mysteries on daytime TV). But the film is so hopeful, so joyful, and in such striking contrast to the sorrow we normally attach to the twin towers, that it’s a worthwhile watch.