2008 // UK - USA // James Marsh // August 5, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - James Marsh's Man on Wire succeeds gratifyingly in one crucial respect, despite its questionable structural choices: It ascends to become more than a mere cinematic description of an event. That counts for a lot in documentary film-making. Marsh strives mightily to convey (and largely accomplishes) a sense of the transcendent in this story of French acrobat Philippe Petit and the outrageous artistic stunt he improbably pulled off. In 1974, Petit and several accomplices entered the World Trade Center and strung a high-wire between the Two Towers, setting the stage for a 45-minute tightrope performance at 1,400 feet with no net.
That's pretty much the story, but as with most effective documentaries, Man on Wire—which takes its title from the Port Authority's description of Petit's "disorderly conduct"—is compelling because of the unexpected themes it discovers. If the film falters a bit in its presentation, it's due to to the clumsy, scrambled structure it employs, and the way it hedges its bets by dwelling for far too long on the drama of its story's heist aspects. Still, Man on Wire pinpoints the same sublime wonder that Petit evoked when he created such a baffling, beautiful work of performance art.
Man on Wire begins on the day of the "coup," as Petit's team termed their act of trespassing-slash-performance. The tale of the coup unfolds gradually in stylized black-and-white recreations, and Marsh presents the act as a good-natured caper. It's not an untenable approach per se, but the film's fractured tone in these sequences—simultaneously anxious and clownish—always seems somewhat awkward. In this respect, Man on Wire compares unfavorably to last year's Deep Water, another film about human limits and foolish risks that marvelously evoked tense drama from historical events. Ultimately, Man on Wire's aims soar higher, so its odd tone is a minor sin.
The film's more vexing problem is that it intercuts the lengthy coup sequence with flashbacks that examine Petit's youth, his previous tightrope stunts, and the team's elaborate planning and preparations. This repeatedly deflates the tension that the film is attempting to evoke, and for no discernible reason. (Contrast this with Into the Wild, a flawed film that nonetheless shrewdly used a entwined, twin narrative structure to prevent a glum mood from settling over its latter half.) The chopped and rearranged story just doesn't add anything to Man on Wire, which would have been much more compelling as a chronological narrative.
Despite these problems, however, the giddy thrill of Petit's stunt—of his whole persona and worldview, actually—exhibits an undeniable pull on the film and the viewer. Man on Wire's stylistic nods to the heist genre work best when they convey a certain Naughty Boy glee, such as in the perpetrators' clichéd nicknames ("The Australian," "The Inside Man", etc.) While some of Petit's accomplices assisted in his previous stunts, they all seem to have been taken unawares by the Frenchman's commitment to the "WTC Project". Their remembrances all strike a similar note: The reality of the danger (and the lunacy of it all) didn't hit them until they realized that Petit actually intended to step onto that wire.
The acrobat's passion and Zen focus burn through every frame of Man on Wire. It's fair to say that the documentary is Petit's film as much as Marsh's. Occasionally the filmmaker errs on the side of credulity in his mythologizing of the man. There's something a little too neat about Petit's alleged resolve as a teenager to wirewalk between the Twin Towers, before the structures were even completed, and Marsh seems to accept this ancedote without question. At other times Marsh pulls back from more fascinating territory, such as his tantalizing and maddening dance around the disintegration of Petit's relationships in the wake of the WTC Project.
Where these more humanistic elements are present, they paradoxically serve to highlight Man on Wire's obvious fascination with the sublime aspects of performance. Petit is joyously unapologetic about his stunt, and an enthusiastic witness for its transformative power, both for himself and everyone who looked up that August morning in 1974. He glibly asserts, "There is no 'Why'" when asked about the rationale for the WTC Project, but the why is obvious: To give the world a taste of something magical. Indeed, his accomplices echo this sentiment, speaking in reverent tones about the effect of the spectacle, struggling to find words. Some of them are moved to tears, because of the beauty in the remembered feat, or the pain of their falling out with Petit after such a triumph, or both.
At the documentary's inarguable climax, when Petit finally steps onto the wire, Marsh hushes the Michael Nyman score for a delicate Satie piano tune and takes us through a stunning selection of photos that captured the stunt. It's a beautiful sequence, a moving counterpoint to the film's previously harried, veering path. For days and weeks thereafter, the world buzzed about this man who danced a quarter mile above the earth for less than an hour, becoming like a god. For all of Petit's self-aggrandizing talk of rebellion and "pushing himself," this is Man on Wire's most striking thesis, one that Marsh recognizes and communicates with boundless sincerity and awe. Petit's former girlfriend, Annie, recalls vainly attempting to point him out to spectators beneath the Twin Towers: You can't see him, but he's up there. Like a god, indeed.