Man on Wire
by C.J. Arellano
New Documentary Examines Modern America Without Ever Leaving 1974
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Twenty-seven years before the World Trade Center collapsed into the modern era of war, xenophobia, and broken national morale, the Twin Towers made the six o’clock news for an entirely different reason: a French prankster named Philippe Petit illegally walked a tightrope pulled taut between Tower #1 and Tower #2. Bystanders watched transfixed, the police watched enraged, and for one August day, New York City witnessed an act of glee, rebellion, stupidity, and carefree whimsy that could only happen in 1974.
The beauty of Man on Wire, the new BBC-produced documentary directed by James Marsh, is that it ponders the state of present-day America without ever straying from its singular premise: to tell the story of Petit’s infamous walk.
Man on Wire presents the narrative by sewing lively interviews with gorgeously shot black-and-white recreations. The movie opens with a finely staged sequence involving a group of five or six nervous Frenchmen who load vans with equipment and make their way to the World Trade Center. They move with the clockwork and quietude of the spies from Mission: Impossible or, as long as we’re in the realm of black-and-white French, the rapscallions of Bresson’s Pickpocket. These people are Phillippe Petit and his entourage of five or six dutiful followers, aiding him in his rebel-without-a-cause stunt because there apparently was nothing better to do in France in 1974.
As Petit’s Danny-Ocean-like crew infiltrate the Twin Tower premises based on fake IDs alone, they move like criminals and technically are, but the movie doesn’t treat them as such. In the movie’s library of talking heads, Philippe Petit steals the show as a mad scientist of a raconteur whose eyes still light up like Christmas at the prospect of discussing his feat. Meanwhile, his cohorts’ interviews range from the dumbfounded to the hesitant to the plainly admiring. One senses that a question has more than nagged them for the past 27 years: “How do you explain a man like Philippe Petit?”
Man on Wire has no qualms with romanticizing the notion of Philippe Petit and his whole act. In fact, with the round-robin of excited interviews narrating the dreamily shot black-and-white recreations—every staged image reads like a postcard in motion—Man on Wire feels less like a documentary and more like a tall tale told at Thanksgiving dinner. By far, that’s not a bad thing.
After all, why not display what the public dubbed the “artistic crime of the century” with a confident dose of sleek wistfulness? Director James Marsh infuses the black-and-white color scheme not only in his recreations, but in the backgrounds and clothing of his interviews as well. So as we watch one half of Petit’s crew hide out in one building and half of his crew in the other building… As we gasp in disbelief when they tire through the dark and windy night to shoot the wire from one tower to the other using some ridiculous bow-and-arrow method (which, lo and behold, works)… As the sun rises and Phillippe takes his first step onto that wire with nothing but a concrete safety net 1350 feet down… The effect of Marsh’s black-and-white is subtle but stunning. Man on Wire comes off not only as nostalgia for youthful ebullience colliding with the rigidity of grown-up corporate authoritarianism, the documentary acts as the cinematic equivalent of curvaceous furniture seen in one of those austere design magazines that cost $25 an issue. Man on Wire is both ultra-quaint and ultra-modern.
This fusion of fondness for the past and fascination with formal modernity allows the viewer to see the story through a prism etched in the present-day. The movie never directly addresses the here and now—even the inevitable question of “What are Petit and his gang up to these days?” is kept to a minimum. And yet, James Marsh so firmly places a cloud of 2008 over the proceedings. So why indeed does Man on Wire exude the ability to captivate an audience sitting 27 years away from the anecdote at hand? Simply…
Today, it can’t be done.
It can’t be done because a band of overt foreigners would go through nine security checks and three pat-downs before even making it past the front lobby of a nationally beheld skyscraper.
It can’t be done because we all have more important things to do than tightrope-walk into the oblivion of “Why not?”
It can’t be done because these towers no longer exist, of course, due to an event both the cause and effect of men listing reasons to fear each other.
Man on Wire is a valentine to the rhapsodic mindset so rare outside the strange aura that is Phillippe Petit, yes. The film clearly loves and adores him, and invites us to sign up for the full-year fan club membership. The guy is charming in his interviews and delightful in his life-is-beautiful energy. Even when Phillippe Petit commits a random act of infidelity against his girlfriend, both he and the film laugh it off as more harmless shenanigans in the name of being free and bold.
But even as Man on Wire paints an unapologetic tone of hero worship around its main subject, the film is also silently a comment on America at the start of a new uncertain century. Indeed, the national morale was not its most burnished in 1974, but arguably things are even direr now. Looking back at Phillippe Petit’s droll walk between two national monuments allows us to question our own nation’s tightrope act after those monuments are no more.
The title itself—MAN ON WIRE—appears in a delicious and appropriate place in the movie. Once you see it and consider where and in what context it appears, you might ask the same question James Marsh most likely had on his mind: Why is Phillippe Petit such a dangerous stranger to America in the first place?
C.J. Arellano is a film critic living in Chicago.
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