Man On Wire

Director    James Marsh
Starring    Philippe Petit, Aaron Haskell, Jean Francois Heckel
Release    25 JUL (US) 1 AUG (UK)    Certificate 12A
4 stars


4th August 2008

On August 7th 1974, one man crossed the void between the two towers of the World Trade Center, 1,350 feet above the streets of New York - on a wire. No harness, no safety nets, no TV crew filming him. The only thing stopping him plummeting hundreds of feet was his own skill and determination; one quiver and he'd had it.

The man in question is Philippe Petit, an eccentric French high-wire artist. Petit had been a street performer in Paris and previously performed high-risk high-wire stunts across Sydney Harbour Bridge and Notre Dame Cathedral. From the moment he learned of the construction of the world's tallest buildings in New York, he saw it as his destiny to conquer the towers with his tightrope as if they had been constructed for this very purpose. It became an all-consuming obsession.

Director James Marsh employs a range of mechanisms to tell the tale of Petit's triumphant tightrope acrobatics. Archive footage, interviews with those involved and reconstruction of the big day are blended skilfully to create a truly exhilarating documentary. The events of August 7th are interspersed with the back story of how it came to fruition - the scale and logistical complexity of the project is quite staggering. Marsh depicts the events like a bank robbery, except that this crime is victimless and awe-inspiring.

Alas, there is no film footage of Petit's great artistic crime, which you might think would present the filmmakers with a problem - on the contrary, it adds to the power of the film. Through a combination of still images taken on the day and the descriptions of those present, Marsh is able to make your heart lurch as Petit takes his first tentative steps out onto the wire, then overwhelm you with joy at the realisation that he has pulled it off. This was long before the days of the citizen journalist and their YouTube mementos. It was a fleeting moment, a unique transcendental happening witnessed only by a handful of onlookers and rendered all the more poignant in light of what became of the towers less than three decades later.

But what kind of man would undertake such a terrifying feat? A great man with one heck of an ego. Petit's narcissism is as lofty as his ambition. He is also charming and charismatic with a taste for mischief and unflinching faith in his dream. Petit is able to carry others along on a wave of enthusiasm for the seemingly impossible - it is the friends he enlists to help that make his vision a reality. The documentary includes interviews with all the key characters, an peculiar bunch of aficionados. There is intrigue and mistrust amongst the co-conspirators, adding to the excitement of the film and the sense that they are carrying out a heist; 'le coup' as they call it. The interviewees are still awestruck and emotional when describing the event.

A palpable tension becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses; Petit effectively ditched his friends and devoted girlfriend Annie after the successful coup. The media storm following Petit's high-wire heist depicted him as a lone maverick and the accomplices were quickly forgotten. Perhaps residual resentment has prevented this extraordinary tale being told on the big screen before now. Even though the documentary presents hard evidence that this event actually took place, it is still beyond comprehension. It's hard to argue with the assertion that this was "the artistic crime of the century". What else even comes close? Anna

More:  Documentary
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