I’d actually never heard about the event on which this film is based, and when I did I was somewhat surprised to say the least. In 1974 Philippe Petit performed a high-wire routine on a huge metal cable, set up by himself and his friends, running in between the twin towers. The film tag-line labels this the “artistic crime of the century” and I’m inclined to agree. What’s more surprising though is that this amazing feat has been successfully transferred into this 90 minute documentary without a hint of sensationalism, without any hyperbole, and in an unrelentingly exciting and moving way.
Starting from the very beginning with the character of Philippe himself, and charting the rise of the idea from the youthful obsession of a young man in love with his art right through it’s planning within his clique and then all of the hitches and glitches that bogged down the execution of this audacious scheme, the movie covers the event itself from every single angle. This means that when the moment itself arises you’ve been hooked so much on the idea, the concept and the characters that it is an unutterably profound spectacle that exceeds the mere immediate thrill of such an exciting event. But possibly the greatest achievement of a film trying to pack so much in is that it didn’t drag for a single moment.
Part of this great achievement stems from the organisation of this documentary, which plays to its own down-to-earth, playful roots. The narrative is largely driven by an anecdotal style of storytelling from the mouths of the felons themselves. The intimacy this creates does much to cultivate the electric atmosphere that surrounds the images on screen, whether they’re scenes from the past, reconstructions, or images from the high-wire walk itself. The enthusiasm of Philippe himself, as he tells the story with childlike glee, is quite simply a joy to watch.
In case you’re still not convinced on just how great this documentary is, I have more to inform you. You may, like I was, be suspecting that this film could lapse into a nostalgic look at the past through some heavy 9/11 tinted spectacles with an added chunk of hero worship/idealism thrown in for good measure. If you are, I can inform you now that this is cynical and unfair. Throughout the entirety of the film the tragedy that was the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers is not mentioned a single time, it is merely left as an unspoken melancholic undercurrent hinted at only once when the narrator states that this was a feat that “would never be repeated again.”
As to the potential for hero-worship of a harmless hippie who wowed the world, the darker side of Philippe’s personality, particularly after his feat gained him celebrity status, is not spared scrutiny. The pains of the public eye are acknowledged just as much as the joy this artistic endeavour brought people.
An engaging, witty and completely absorbing documentary that has worthy subject matter; Man on Wire is fun, well-made and entertaining. I highly recommend it.
This article was first posted on July 18, 2008