Man on Wire (2008)


(director: James Marsh; screenwriter: based on the memoir To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit; cinematographer: Igor Martinovic; editor: Jinx Godfrey; music: J. Ralph; cast: Philippe Petit (Himself); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Simon Chinn; Magnolia Pictures; 2008)
“Maintains a sense of excitement and poetry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British-born filmmaker James Marsh (“The Team”/”The King”/”Wisconsin Death Trip”) joyfully in a tongue-and-cheek manner chronicles how on August 7, 1974, a 24-year-old elfin French prankster high-wire artist named Philippe Petit in almost miraculous manner walked back and forth between New York’s World Trade twin towers, the tallest building in the world, at 1, 350 feet above the ground, on the 110th floor, eight times for 45-minutes and also danced and performed acrobatic feats on the wire cable that stretched 200 feet between the mighty towers. The illegal act that caused no harm to others became referred to by the arresting Port Authority police as “the artistic crime of the century.” Arrested for trespassing and taken for a psychological evaluation, Petit was soon released and what he did became a memorable event in the short history of the World Trade Center–a building seemingly more beloved after its demise then when functioning.

This subdued film, that thankfully makes no mention of 9/11, shows how this zany attention loving romantic character became obsessed with carrying out his dream ever since as a teenager in 1968 when he was reading in a magazine feature about the construction of the World Trade Center in a dentist’s waiting room in France, decided that his mission in life would be to walk on the high-wire across its twin towers. The film tells in minute detail everything you could possibly want to know about how this determined clownish character accomplished his mission with the help of his colorful cast of international accomplices. It also includes how he performed earlier feats of walking and juggling between the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral (1971) and the northern pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge (1973). Marsh bases the story from Petit’s own 2002 memoir, To Reach the Clouds.

By having an older and still enthusiastic Petit tells us in his own words the inside skinny of the lark that took place 34 years ago, the movie maintains a sense of excitement and poetry as if it was frozen in time. It shows a vibrant city, in a bygone era, that was deliciously flavored without the fear-mongering of a later NYC controlled by the corporate-minded bully Giuliani and a still later fun-starved post 9/11 America worried over terrorism.

The compelling Man On Wire (the title derived from what was written on the NYPD arrest complaint) is filled with archival footage and photos, interviews with all Petit’s accomplices (especially his countryman and most trusted supporter Jean-Louis Blondeau) and his then girlfriend (Annie Allix), newsreels and some re-enactments. It was the double winner of both Sundance’s jury prize and its audience award for world documentary.