Man on Wire is the incredible story of Philippe Petit’s lifelong dream to erect a high-wire between the twin towers and walk across. At multiple times through the film Petit declares he believes the towers were made for him to fulfil this dream. If anything, this story was made for a documentary, it is without hyperbole absolutely extraordinary that this ever happened. Taking place in 1974, it is almost equally insane that a documentary has taken this long to be made. Winning the Oscar for best documentary last week Man on Wire makes me feel comfortable in exclaiming a very tired cliché; you really must see it to believe it.
Petit’s dream unfolds more in the vein of a heist film than a documentary. Trust the French to have such an audacious idea but then have the gall to actually follow it through. Thus, the real centre of the narrative are the extraordinary logistics of illegally gaining access to the top of the twin towers and erecting the wire itself. More often than not it is the preparation and execution of installing the wire that seems more implausible than the actual act of walking across it. Of course Petit didn’t do this by himself and his accomplices provide an interesting group dynamic, complete with love affairs and distrust.
Director James Marsh deftly mixes Petit’s excited accounts with those of his companions as well as utilising well conceived dramatisations and footage from the time. Incredibly while there is a wealth of footage of preparation and practice no one appeared to think of filming the actual event. Thankfully someone had a still camera, and the montage of images assembled, playing over an overused Eric Satie piece, still defy comprehension.
Sensibly, there are no references to 9/11. Of course it is always at the back of our minds, yet Man on Wire operates like a swan song, it is the self contained story of an event of fantastic dreams and staggering beauty that happened there. Petit’s exquisite act gives us something to offset the usual despair associated with the towers while also proving nothing is impossible. There I go again, employing another cliché, however its difficult to articulate myself having just witnessed something I truly did believe to be unthinkable.