I’m not sure if Man on Wire could exist as a film without the now non-existent Twin Towers. The archival footage of the towers being built have a painful allure. In fact, there’s one particularly strange double-take moment when we’re looking at the early construction of the towers. That great hole in the ground where the towers will one day be looks exactly like the later images of the reclamation and debris removal – that great hole in the ground where the towers used to be. The film then, serves as a re-introduction of the towers to our consciousness. Nudging aside perhaps, if only for a moment, the images of the planes crashing and the towers falling. None of this is ever referred to of course, a credit to the makers. Nevertheless, it’s part and parcel of the film’s soul.
When high-wire artist Philippe Petit first began to dream about the twin towers, they had not even been built. And he was just beginning to develop his skills as a high-wire artist. In June of 1971 he did his bit atop the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Meanwhile, with the groundbreaking for the World Trade Center towers in 1966, the second (South) Tower was completed the next month (July 1971).
Then in 1973, Petit walked Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge. All of this in preparation for his ultimate goal – the Twin Towers walk of August 7th, 1974.
Usually seeing these things as news events, I find them boring and selfish. Someone (besides the ‘artiste’) could get hurt. And there is expense and inconvenience involved for the local citizenry. For the performer of course, there’s the elation and exhilaration that they get from the accomplishment. While I admit that some of the images are awesome (especially those where Petit seems to be laying down in the sky, suspended in space (the wire is barely visible at a long distance), I am not personally inspired or uplifted. But I guess I’m supposed to be.
But this award-winning documentary does do a fairly good job getting at the motivations of these kinds of people – at least this one. And it is suspenseful in its own way, the planning and execution of the caper (they refer to it as “the coup” in their planning) is just like a good caper film.
Petit himself not surprisingly has that manic-obsessive demeanor, while his girl friend is over the top worshipful, Seems they split up after the event, though she seems to take it all in stride: just another life defining moment. Time to move on. Fact his best buddy (Jean-Louis) who had helped on all his performances is a bit emotional on all accounts as well. These people better stay off of high-wires. Leave that up to Petit.
The phrase “Man on Wire” by the way, comes directly from Petit’s arrest document.