This extraordinary documentary by James Marsh (WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, PROJECT NIM) tells the story behind the planning, preparation and covert execution of Philippe Petit's unnanounced, illegal, death-defying high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Some dramatic recreations are included, but it's gratifying to discover how much documentary footage from the time exists.
You might think that a film like this would be at least somewhat cut-and-dried -- after all, we know that Petit was successful -- but it's not; MAN ON WIRE is not just about the event, it's about some preparatory events that primed him for this ultimate demonstration of his powers of balance and concentration, and also about his relationships with the support team so necessary to his various triumphs. Their comments about getting to the point where Petit was able to perform his feat are no less intense, no less daring on their own terms (some had to back away even from that level of responsibility), and the film as a whole must be counted as remarkably nerve-fraying for a documentary.
MAN ON WIRE is also one of those rare documentaries that work on a level well above and beyond the reporting of true events. Petit's journey to the top of the world on the narrowest of floors is vividly approached and conveyed as an artistic undertaking, a death challenge accepted for no other reason than to do something that is at once astonishingly poetical and singular in its achievement. It becomes a poem, in its own right, about what it means to be a visionary, about the beauty and terror of taking risks, about accepting the responsibility to push the achievements of your species that much farther beyond the cusp of human comprehension. Though no motion picture film footage exists of the actual WTC walk (it's depicted in numerous still photos), to watch this documentation is to feel the exquisite swordplay of its mortifications and manic joys, and to feel exalted afterwards.
The film is almost as fascinating in its study of the performance's aftermath. Petit (who was in a serious relationship) admits to succumbing to an admirer's seduction afterwards; clearly, he came so very close to death and ascended to such a vulnerable spiritual plane that he couldn't help but venture to the equal and opposite end of the physical, what he calls "the flesh." The mania resulting from his success also affected his other friendships, the details of which I should leave to your discovery. What could not have been factored into the eventual outcome of this 1974 footage was that it would only reach an audience at a time when the twin towers no longer existed, when many others fell or jumped to their deaths from the same building, when the feat would stand out so colossally as unrepeatable. It's these facts that make MAN ON WIRE such a powerful poem in its own right, and which reinforce Petit's dream as something other than madness. Because even if he falls, isn't it better to sacrifice yourself on the altar of a beautiful idea, a supreme expression of the enormous beauty of freedom, than to plummet as fallout from a declaration of war?
Viewed on Netflix.