Really, Man on Wire have might as well not existed if Philippe Petit himself were not available for it. Of course, this seems obvious – Petit’s achievement of walking across the twin towers is a staggering feat of human achievement, however trivial. In fact the story of the achievement itself might have been made into a skillful documentary – something you’d stop the clicker on if it came on the History Channel – but director James Marsh accomplishes so much more, and it is almost completely traceable to the boon of having Philippe Petit himself providing narration about the the adventure.
First of all of course, Petit’s story is pretty amazing. As most of you probably know, Petit walked back and forth across the space between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. But how did he get up there? How did he get the wire across? How do you get past security? That Petit was able to pull all this off was incredible, involving trespassing, lying, conning, getting people on the inside. All of this is the stuff of a thriller. To Marsh’s credit, he creates suspense, using dramatic recreations for scenes that could not have been filmed. With all the participants describing what happened, the experience they had rivals any decent caper movie.
Intercut with the film footage and the dramatic recreations are unsurprisingly interviews, voice overs, the typical stuff of documentaries. But here we get the interviews with Petit himself, and he is spellbinding. He is French but has a terrific command of the language – and is so poetic in his descriptions of what happened and how his team worked. Philippe talks enthusiastically how he became obsessed with climbing things as a child, how he started performing climbing in public places (like Notre Dame in Paris). He is poetic describing “appetites of the flesh” when describing the spoils of victory, and just funny recalling the adventure.
And then finally, there is the site of a man walking across the twin towers. What must it have been like to be down on the ground. It had to be a real “it’s a bird, it’s a plane” thing. The sheer wonder of it all, seeing a speck turn into a man or something. There is poignance there, touching the void – something Werner Herzog might have appreciated. Especially realizing what is in the skyline now, it is a staggering image.