A heist movie and a biography movie and also, I suppose, a documentary, Man on Wire is a thrilling account of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk from one of the Twin Towers to the other. Director James Marsh mixes archival footage, black-and-white reenactments and talking-head interviews to not only reveal the amazing details of the feat itself, but something of the psychology behind it.
Occasionally this mixture blurs the line between fact and fiction in unhelpful ways (I prefer to know the source of the documentary material I’m looking at, even as I understand that archival footage itself can be untruthful). Yet the technique also allows for some lovely moments of cinematic poetry. Parallel cutting between Petit’s previous walks – including one across the towers of Notre Dame – and archive footage of the construction of the World Trade Center gives us the impression that these historic structures were conceived for the sole purpose of supporting his wire. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the film also serves as a lovely elegy for their very existence.
Petit proves to be something of a poet himself. Barely able to sit still in his interview scenes, he describes driving into one of New York City’s tunnels as “being engulfed by a monster.” Recalling the first time he became aware of the towers – reading a magazine while waiting for a toothache to be taken care of in a dentist’s office – he says that he immediately left the office to begin his plans. “What’s the pain now that I have acquired my dream?”
At its best, Man on Wire captures the mysterious beauty of Petit’s obsession, without ever being so gauche as to “explain” it. Why would Petit take on such a risk? It’s an obvious question he openly disdains in the documentary, even if his florid description of the walk itself gives something of an answer: “There was peace and immensity and in the middle of all this madness I suddenly had hope and joy.” Sounds like a fair trade to me.