Dir.James Marsh. UK/US. 2008. 99 mins
Philippe Petit is a born entertainer. In the summer of 1974, he defied logic and the laws of gravity to repeatedly traverse a high wire cable stretching between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. More than thirty years later he is equally beguiling when it comes to recalling the planning and execution of this awe-inspiring feat, with an enthusiasm and memory for detail that proves completely infectious.
Man On Wire never stoops to lazy nostalgia or sentimentality; the fate of the Twin Towers in 2001 is never mentioned
Exemplary proof that fact is just as enthralling as fiction, this James Marsh documentary should prove a theatrical crowd-pleaser; it’s a film that deserves to be seen on a cinema screen after which it will no doubt move on to a robust life on television and ancillary.
Director James Marsh made a disappointing move into dramatic features with gothic bloodbath The King in 2005. Man On Wire merely underlines his confidence and comfort with the documentary format: he never puts a foot wrong in a seamless combination of talking head interviews, home movies, still photographs and dramatic reconstructions of key events that give the film the feel of a meticulously-plotted heist thriller.
The film’s ace in the hole is Petit, who talks with immense passion about his conviction that the Twin Towers may have been constructed especially to provide him with the challenge of a lifetime. We witness footage of his previous exploits travelling across a high wire suspended from Notre Dame and again from the Sydney Bridge. There’s something of the irrepressible enthusiast about Petit that almost makes him like a character from a Jacques Tati film. His preparations for the force of the high winds at the top of the Twin Towers as he walks a wire in foreign fields with friends pulling him in every direction could almost be a moment from the French nouvelle vague.
Petit’s main accomplices, including girlfriend Annie Allix, Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-Francois Heckel, are equally good value for money as they paint vivid pictures with their stories of an event that feels as immediate as today’s headlines.
Man On Wire never stoops to lazy nostalgia or sentimentality; the fate of the Twin Towers in 2001 is never mentioned. It does speak to a more innocent age when security was less of an issue and Petit and his friends could talk their way into a major building and achieve their ends. Anyone who suffers from vertigo will be sweating with anxiety at the photos and images of Petit calmly suspended between the Twin Towers, looking down at the tiny figures below, lying horizontal on the cable and so at ease that he made eight journeys between the towers during the forty-five minutes he spent on the wire.
Marsh makes highly-effective use of Michael Nyman’s music to underline the nail-biting tension and unique beauty of what Petit achieved. As Annie Allix observes: ‘It was like he was walking on a cloud.’ Marsh may have been granted the gift of a dream subject and an abundance of fine material but that in no way detracts from the skill with which he has transformed a great subject into a highly entertaining and extremely accessible film.
Wall To Wall
Red Box Films
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