The defining moment in Man on Wire for me was about 20 minutes into the film when footage of the World Trade Center towers being constructed is shown in all it’s grainy, faded glory. Seeing again those massive triple-beams cross-hatched in almost puzzle-like pieces, being hoisted above stacks of steel rebar, sheets of metal, blocks of concrete and a persistent lingering of beige dust, could only make me think of one thing. The beautiful irony of the whole movie is that when numerous gratuitous documentaries have been made about the WTC catastrophe, each with their special blend of film and video footage of that infamous day and its Dante-like aftermath, Man on Wire never once recalls that terror and in addition offers up this glorious peek at the landmark’s birth.
But, ok, that’s not what the film is about. Man on Wire is a documentary about Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker (and all-around interesting guy) from France and the intricate plot he exacted just after the birth of the WTC: walking on a single steel wire which him and some friends strung between the two towers over night. It’s a truly fabulous story and one which Petit himself made into a book. He was writing it in 2001 when the towers fell.*
1,350 feet in the air, in the wee hours of the Manhattan morning fog, Petit dressed all in black walked, knelt and laid down on the wire he’d spent the night setting up. He had crossed back and forth at least eight times before the New York City Port Authority and police yanked him in from the clouds. Neither wind, nor nerves, nor helicopters could knock him down, although he himself claimed he thought the feat something of a death wish. The film primarily deals with how Petit and his band of accomplices planned, developed and exacted such an event without being caught, spotted or stopped. Even more interesting is the reaction of the police and city officials who while taking the matter seriously (deporting the non-Americans involved), dropped all charges against them and actually gave Petit a lifelong all-access pass to the rooftop of the WTC.
Bittersweet is a single photo of Petit straddling a steel beam on the rooftop on which he’d dated and signed his name. Now the photos are all that remain. Man on Wire is chock-full with archival footage of Petit and even some of his other unconventional tightrope displays (Notre Dame, Sydney Harbour Bridge), glossy interviews with just about everybody involved in the project, and nicely detailed dramatic reconstructions of the day-long hideout at the WTC and the preparations of that night leading up to the trick. All-in-all there is nothing this film doesn’t deliver upon and nothing you can do but watch in awe as the titular man’s circus-wit, charming effervescence and steely nerves endure a feat most of us wouldn’t even dare to dream about.
*Lazarovic, Sara. “The Daredevil in the Clouds.” National Post Monday. September 9, 2002.