Here’s another film that I put off viewing. The documentary Man on Wire was released in 2008, but since it dealt with the World Trade Center Twin Towers, I always procrastinated, not wanting to see still more images of airplanes crashing into buildings and imagining the people inside the planes and the towers. I’d seen the footage a damaging number of times in 2001, and even ten years later, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Flight 93, which I’ve read is incredible. (Oliver Stone’s movie doesn’t loom for me in the same way.) As a result of my trepidation, Man on Wire has languished on my list for years, mostly out of dread of seeing what amounts to people being incinerated. I didn’t see any point in returning to those scenes, and I wasn’t sure that I could sit through the Man on Wire even if I tried.
I needn’t have feared. The film is celebratory, not mournful or scornful like almost everything else about the Towers since 2001. It’s more about a man achieving a beautiful, transitory dream than anything else.
Man on Wire recounts in detail why and how Frenchman Philippe Petit walked on a balancing wire between the two Manhattan towers in 1974, just as the construction was being completed.
Petit is a fascinating character, and the entire plan, hatched and rehearsed in France with some ambitious, sometimes eccentric collaborators, is the kind of scheme that I think must only happen in the movies.
Indeed, some of the documentary relies on dramatization, but while those scenes are purposefully obvious, they do not detract from the narrative, as a plethora of footage exists for them to merge with to place the audience alongside Petit at every stage of the act, from fanciful inception to fantastic conclusion.
The documentary also comes across as a bit of a heist film, especially in the detailed planning, involving disguises, fake IDs, in-house collaborators, hiding out, and the assemblage of a diverse crew to pull the grand caper off. Mr. Lousy would appreciate this aspect of the film.
And the end is indeed thrilling. I’d heard stories of some crazy Frenchman who walked on a wire across the towers, but I had no idea how suspenseful the build-up to this accomplishment was.
Yet, once Petit is on the wire, over a hundred stories in the air, balancing, sitting, lying down, taunting the authorities awaiting him on both towers, it feels more like performance art rather than an insane stunt. It is thrilling, but since we know all along that he won’t fall, we can concentrate on the beauty of the moment, of Petit achieving a dream, and of a fellow human dancing in the sky.
While I watched Petit prance amidst the clouds, I felt a joy that I thought I could never possibly catch hold of while looking at the World Trade Center.
I should have gone to the film the day it hit town.
Director James Marsh responded to questions about the omission of the 2001 attacks by stating that such inclusion would infect the beauty of Petit’s act. Moreover, as a New Yorker, he wanted to give the city (and presumably the world) a different lasting image of the towers.
He did. I consider it a triumph of spirit in re-creating Petit’s walk so thoroughly that I felt as if I were one of the spectators on the streets below, or perhaps one of his friends waiting at the side of the tower, or even a passenger in the helicopter buzzing overhead, threatening to pluck him off the wire. For me, 1974 Manhattan came alive as the French funambulist traipsed above the city skyline.
This is not to say that the 2001 September 11 attack was absent. To the contrary, I found Philippe Petit’s mirthful lawbreaker, delighting himself and the world in his crime, to be in stark contrast to the attacks, carried out by zealots filled with hatred and contempt for humanity, scheming to kill and destroy on such a scale to shake the U.S. and the world with fear, rage, and devastation. An unspoken counterbalance was taking place on screen, with mischief instead of mass-murder, joy in place of sorrow, realization of a dream rather than of terror.
Petit, nimbly trotting across a cable stretched between the two towers, presents us with an act of love – an admittedly unusual appreciation for architecture, a carefully sketched out and rehearsed plan that inspires child-like wonder, an aerialist’s turn as artist – and lifts us to a distinct emotional plane, where simply being alive is a thrill, with each second in the sky savored.