Review of Man on Wire

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A 2008 documentary chronicling Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York City's World Trade Center. Based on Petit's book titled "To Reach the Clouds".
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Movie Reviews: "Man on Wire"

-- Rating: PG-13 (drug references, some sexuality, nudity)
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: August 1, 2008
Directed by: James Marsh
Genre: Documentary/Biography

For anyone who wasn't already aware, it may be hard to believe that the World Trade Center towers were extremely unpopular with New Yorkers when they were first completed in 1973. Many of the office spaces stood empty, even though there were available for rent. Architectural critics called them "ugly" and too "utilitarian" to have the prime Manhattan space that they occupied. It wasn't until French high-wire artist Philippe Petit pulled off a monumental stunt in 1974 that they began to be appreciated.

Petit made a living as a street performer but was inspired to do more by some of the great structures around the world. He loved walking across a high wire and decided in the 1960s to travel around the world doing high-wire walks across famous buildings. His conquests included the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Notre Dame de Paris. In 1968, he saw a magazine article about the construction of the Twin Towers and decided to make this his next project, which he called "le coup."

"Man on Wire" uses a combination of archival footage, interviews and stage footage to reenact the story of how Petit and a motley crew of assistants managed to take a 450-pound cable and a custom-made balancing pole that was a full 26 feet long. Director James Marsh wisely lets Petit himself narrate the film, allowing for the boisterous man to give a firsthand account of all the planning and preparation that took over six years to make the walk happen.

There is unfortunately no actual footage of Petit crossing between the tours eight times before he relinquished himself to the police, who arrested him immediately. His assistants brought a camera up to roof with them but were so amazed that their plan actually worked that they forgot to use it. Somehow, the black-and-white still photos that are the only photographic evidence of the feat are more eerie than if actual video had been used.

This is definitely a documentary, but it feels almost like a scripted movie at times. The inclusion of new footage using actors to simulate the planning it took to sneak up to the roof could have come straight out of one of the best heist films. His then girlfriend, Annie, recalls that Petit did indeed watch several such films as part of his preparation for the walk. This is very telling and makes the heist movie tone of the documentary seem all the more relevant.

There was no way Petit and his crew could have filmed themselves when they were stuck on a beam underneath a tarp trying to escape from a patrolling security guard. Marsh fills in these holes with new footage that is seamlessly spliced with archival video. It is hard to tell what is footage from the 1970s and what was filmed today, which is a testament to Marsh and his editing crew.

The action moves from New York to France and back because Petit took several trips to New York in order to plan his coup. He spins tales about how he disguised as a Tower worker to get access to the roof and see how the security detail in the building worked. He recalls his deceptions with the glee of a child, even though Petit was already nearing 60 when the film was being made.

Neither Marsh nor Petit ever speak about the eventual fate of the two towers on 9/11. There is a haunting scene at the beginning of the movie where footage of the construction of the towers is shown, which resembles video of the cleanup in 2001 of the collapsed towers. This coincidence aside, the destruction of the buildings that helped make Petit famous, is never talked about. This ensures that the focus stays on the feat itself, which some have referred to as the "artistic crime of the century."

Nothing in "Man on Wire" feels like a crime, although it is set up in a way that resembled a crime caper movie. It also feels like something of a love letter to the towers now that they are gone. Petit doesn't try to hide his unbridled enthusiasm for the buildings, and Marsh lets him wax nostalgic with a giddiness that is contagious. If you didn't love the Twin Towers before, you will definitely love them by the time you are done watching this fantastic account of a story so audacious that it has to be seen to be believed.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars