Directed by James Marsh
Man on Wire is a documentary made to feel like a heist movie. Through a series of interviews and dramatic re-enactments, combined with occasional jumping back and forth through time, the film tells the story of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
With production starting in 2006, only five years after the 9/11 attacks which destroyed the towers, Man on Wire celebrates the achievement of constructing the towers as much as Petit’s own performance. The degree to which Petit idolizes the towers speaks to the grandeur of the buildings which now feel more like monuments, ancient artifacts than office buildings.
In other contexts, something like the World Trade Center might be portrayed as a symbol of man’s ego, building something that rises above every other building just because we can. But instead of presenting it as unnecessary excess, Man on Wire celebrates the instinct to build something so tall simply because we can. By tightroping between the two towers, Petit might reason that he celebrates the construction more than anyone else. After his performance, Petit is arrested, and the documentary’s title comes from the arrest report, where a police officer, under reason for arrest, wrote “man on wire.”
Philippe Petit was an active participant in the making of this film. The passion which compelled him to walk between the towers in a typically death-defying act, is evident in the way he tells and re-enacts his stories. He’s as smitten with his own story as we should be, and though that might be somewhat off-putting (the man seems to love himself), it’s important to understand the type of person that would do such a thing, not just to understand the event itself.
Petit is a bit crazy, right? The film, in addition to celebrating the since fallen towers, celebrates the type of insane, passionate energy that would make someone tightrope between these two buildings, drawing a parallel between Philippe’s energy and the work that went into constructing such tremendously huge towers. Director James Marsh seems to be saying that the same burning desire which made Petit go to such great lengths to put on this performance is what led to the construction of the World Trade Center as well.
When the reporters asked Petit why he did it, he had no answer. There is no easy explanation for the type of stunt he pulled other than he had to. Petit, through the interviews in the documentary, consistently refers to the twin towers as his “dream.” He has no choice but to walk between them. Having already performed similar tightrope acts over Notre Dame and a bridge in Sydney, Australia, Petit wanted something bigger, something greater. His point of comparison for the World Trade Center is that it’s 100 meters above the Eiffel Tower, the Parisian landmark. The World Trade Center, to him, is another landmark.
I’m not sure how the WTC was seen at the time of its construction. Post-9/11, the identical buildings, their quiet simplicity almost adding to their mythology, has taken on a much more symbolic role in our culture. The towers weren’t flashy, other than in their height, and the unremarkable exterior of the buildings somehow makes them feel more mysterious, like they were reluctant beasts that once dominated the New York jungle.
Today, just the silhouette of the twin towers, two long rectangles, conjures up so many feelings. Any photo before the attacks is now rendered ominous and foreboding, despite the context or contents of the photo. The way Petit talks about the buildings and his perspective of them in 1974, feels like the way we look at them now. Maybe the rest of New York and America was in as much awe as he was, but we at least certainly are now.
The documentary briefly discusses Philippe’s life up until this performance, but it spends most of the time discussing the highly-detailed plan that went into pulling this off, spending most of the time on the night before.
I could run over the details, but that would be missing the point. The details of the plan are thrilling, and for someone with a fear of heights like me, the performance is heart-pounding. While the specifics of their plan are just as interesting, the story is more about the commitment to the plan and the desperation to pull it off more than anything specific. It makes sense that this story was made into a more conventional narrative movie with Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, in 2015.
Man on Wire is an unconventional documentary because of how stylish and performative it is, mostly due to Petit’s involvement in the production of the film. Philippe Petit sold the story rights to producer Simon Chinn with the promise that he would be an active participant in the telling of the documentary. If we weren’t constantly returning to interviews with the modern day, older Petit, there might be some more drama as to the outcome of his walk. But withholding Petit would remove from the film a vibrant storyteller who conveys more about his character (and thus the performance as a whole) through the way he recalls these events and not just by what he chooses to tell.
There are enough other people interviewed to convey the entire story without Petit, but his theatrical nature of explaining his thinking, his dream and his stubbornness, makes the event much more clear. By understanding the way Petit himself thinks, we have a better understanding of what the stunt means. This wasn’t some crazy act, it was well-thought out with months of pre-production.
Philippe Petit isn’t crazy, even though he has shades of insanity. He’s that part of all of us that dares to run our finger quickly through a flame or touch a hot stove and quickly recoil. It’s just that this part comprises maybe 5% of us and 100% of Philippe Petit. Still, his obsession and passion for something is universal, even if the specifics are sensational.