"Man on Wire" is a new documentary about tightrope walker Phillippe Petite, who decided to string a wire, a strong wire, between the towers of the World Trade Center, just as it was being completed in 1976, and walk across, many hundreds of feet up in the air. Daring? Yes. Crazy? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. Illegal? Yes.
Directed by James Marsh, whose last film was the little seen drama "The King" starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Nick Nolte and Paul Dano, "Man on Wire" is a fun, riveting and lighthearted look at one man's daring, crazy, beautiful and illegal attempt to create a piece of living art.
The story opens with some brief "recreations" much like you might see on A & E these days. A date pops up and we see it is mid 1974. Young men are loading a van with equipment while a television in the background reports on the breaking Watergate Scandal. Then, a jaunty, accented voice is heard and begins to narrate the story of Philippe Petit. It is, in fact, Petit's voice and he tells us about his childhood in the South of France, and how he talked his friends into helping him build a makeshift high wire. Yes, it was only a few feet off the ground, but it allowed Philippe to practice, and practice and practice. We meet his small circle of friends including the girl who will eventually become his girlfriend.
Soon, Phillippe begins to set his sights of bigger challenges and we follow as he and his team of friends decide to set-up a wire on the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, allowing Phillippe to walk back and forth. Everything is timed for this to happen in the early morning, and it comes off like a charm. His girlfriend rushes into the cathedral, during a service and tells the priests that someone is walking between the towers of the church. Soon, a crowd has gathered and Phillippe and his friends talk about the beauty of such a statement. They are making a piece of livable art. Phillippe walks across the wire, towards the middle, slowly, and then takes a break, sitting, reclining on the wire, stretching his legs out, staying perfectly balanced. He almost looks like a ballet dancer, but hundreds of feet up in the air. Then, grainy archival news footage shows us the French police taking Phillippe away in custody.
After he is released, with a mild slap on the wrist, a mixture of recent interviews, archival footage and recreations help to give us a picture of how Phillippe got it in his mind to even think about crossing between the towers of the World Trade Center. He sees a story in the newspaper about the new building, how it will be the tallest structure in the world and it will have two towers. We learn through the interviews that Phillippe is attracted to this because of the danger, the fact that no one has ever done it before or since. The excitement plays a huge part in it, but the notoriety he will earn and the creation of living art all play a factor.
It is pretty evident from the statements of his accomplices that Phillippe is a persuasive, infectious man. As he talks about the plan, his friends, and what will be required, the director cuts to shots of the people involved, in present day, recapturing them as they recount the details. We frequently see their genuine emotions, shock and amazement as they recount the events of yesterday. These events from thirty years ago are still so powerful, they elicit honest, tangible emotions today as the subjects relate their stories. Because of this power, their emotion wears off on us.
Marsh's use of these different forms of media makes this film strikingly similar to some of Errol Morris' best work. The recreations frequently show a subject partially out of frame, deeply out of focus, to help obscure the fact actors are playing real people. Cameras zoom in for close-ups on hands, sides of faces, etc. The camera captures certain things in slow motion. The recreations almost appear to be saturated, in an attempt to match the graininess and age of the archival footage. The new interviews are crisp and well done. All of these various elements are set to a slightly playful musical score (which was also used by Peter Greenaway in "The Draughtsman's Contract"). While not exclusive to Errol Morris, all of these elements are certainly reminiscent of his work. And when they are combined with a strange, but fitting piece of music, the film is almost a homage to the great documentarian.
When Phillippe gets the idea to cross the two towers, he enlists the aid of his friends to help with the planning and execution of the stunt. They also realize they will need the help of some Americans, some inside people, who can help them infiltrate the security of the building.
Perhaps the best thing about "Man on Wire" is that Marsh has constructed the entire story like a bank heist film from the 70s. We start in the middle of the story and work back to the beginning. Then we begin moving forward. The entire plan isn't revealed at the beginning, little pieces of information come in stages, keeping us interested and guessing how they will accomplish this feat.
It is also interesting to learn from current interviews how devoted Philippe's friends and girlfriend were. As they recount their involvement with Phillippe and try to explain why they were so drawn to him, they reveal how much they all loved him. It is evident he is very dynamic and engaging and it is easy to see why he was followed by these people as he attempts to pull of this dangerous feat.
There are the inevitable setbacks and these are thrilling to watch as well. The combination of these various elements helps to paint such a full picture we begin to feel we are actually a part of the story, of the mythology. Because we become a part of this tale, these setbacks affect us, make us wince and cringe. The inevitable 'silly' moments (they walk right by a security guard at one point who never says anything) make us laugh in amazement. When you think about it, there are probably very few instances when you become involved in the film to the extent you will become involved in "Man on Wire".
"Man on Wire" is an involving, fun, interesting documentary. A look at a truly unique and strange individual who goes for his dreams and accomplishes them. With the exception of a brief recreation showing Phillippe partaking in the carnal benefits of his newfound celebrity, "Wire" is the type of film you should take the entire family to. It might give the kids a little push towards achieving their dreams and goals.
Don't miss this fun film. And see it at the theater. Encourage filmmakers to make more films like this. Don't simply wait for it on DVD.