Man on Wire is a 2008 documentary feature film that tells the incredible story of Philippe Petit, a French wire walker who, in August 1974, walked 1350 feet in the air between the newly constructed Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. With the Best Documentary Oscar under its belt, and a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes to this day, it sets the bar very, very, very high indeed for Robert Zemeckis’ dramatic retelling of the stunt, The Walk.
Philippe Petit took his first steps on a tightrope at 16 years old, and immediately took to it; in one summer he learnt all the tricks you could do on a tightrope, such as forward and backward rolls, unicycling, walking on a chair and jumping through hoops, but says he thought of them as “almost ugly”, and preferred just the simple act of walking on the wire. The following year, he happened to see an advert for the future World Trade Centre towers whilst waiting in a dentist’s office, and with the simple drawing of a line between the tops of a towers, a six year long plan was put into action.
The most ingenious aspect of the documentary is that Man on Wire is directed like a heist movie, an element of the story that director James Marsh says first attracted his interest. From the birth of the idea, meticulous planning, research, practicing, even sourcing an inside man and acquiring false ID cards, to the recreation of the big night is told in a punchy, suave style that is closer in spirit to Ocean’s 11 than most examples of the genre. Through a combination of archive images of Petit, contemporary reconstructions of the events building up to the walk, and interviews with the individuals involved in making it happen, the whole scheme is reconstructed in a gripping, riveting style.
The fact that Petit himself has changed very little since the time, remaining as excitable and manic as ever only serves to draw you further into his fascinating tale. The group’s recollection of the break-in itself is a roller-coaster – the unexpected hiccups in the plan, close calls, moments of ingenious improvisation – that has you sat with your heart in your mouth. One particularly memorable moment sees Petit and one of his co-conspirators recall having to sit completely still underneath a tarpaulin for hours on end, due to an unexpected security guard making a leisurely sweep of an unfinished floor. Pedestrian though it may sound, even a simple pause in proceedings is exhilarating.
This tension and anticipation builds perfectly to the moment that Philippe first steps out onto the wire, and all the previous stresses just fall away, as this is what they had all been working towards – he’s there, on the wire. Several of the group burst into tears as they recall the emotions of the moment; the relief, the worry over his safety replacing the worry of being found, but more than anything else, the sheer beauty of it. The grand, swooping Michael Nyman score (borrowed mostly from Peter Greenaway films) is replaced by Erik Satie’s beautiful, dreamlike Gymnopédie No. 1, the perfect piece of music for such a jaw droppingly daring and beautiful feat.
Although no video footage exists of the walk itself (though you’re so engrossed you don’t even notice), numerous photos were taken, both from the towers and street level, of Petit as he crossed the wire eight (eight!) times, lay down on his back 400 metres above the ground, and taunted the flabbergasted police officers waiting to take him into custody by going down on one knee and saluting them. It’s truly one of the most astonishing achievements you’re likely to see a human being willingly undertake, and being able to hear Philippe himself talk you through his memories and emotions of the experience is a privilege.
One particularly poignant photo is shown during this footage. Taken from ground level, the towers stretching up seemingly forever, with the faint hint of a wire and the speck of a figure between them, both dwarfed by the rear end of a plane surprisingly close to the towers. The parallels are obvious, and it would be unnecessary to expand on them, a sentiment James Marsh shared in his decision not to mention the 9/11 attacks at all. The shadow of the event hangs over the film, it would be impossible for it not to, but that day isn’t relevant to the story of Petit’s achievement. His story is one of astounding beauty and his walk brought joy to the millions who saw it across the world, and as Marsh states, “it would be unfair and wrong to infect his story with any mention, discussion or imagery of the Towers being destroyed”. Man on Wire is the story of Philippe Petit’s beautiful conquest of two icons, and we should share in the beauty of his achievement.