' Cinema Romantico: Man on Wire

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Man on Wire

When Philippe Petit was finished scooting back and forth on a metal wire strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974 and taken away by the police and eventually released he was repeatedly asked by the American press, "Why? Why did you do it?" As Petit recounts this in James Marsh's exquisite documentary about the astounding event you can tell he both didn't understand and couldn't stand the question (and still doesn't). The film itself is the same way. It doesn't possess much interest in the why, only the what and the how.

Many critics have compared it to a heist film and that comparison is quite apt. "Man on a Wire" starts with the daring WTC break-in and constantly flashes back to it throughout the narrative while simultaneously showing Petit and his gang as they scheme. Petit's seeing an article in a hospital waiting room about the Twin Towers being built and realizing he must walk between them is essentially a real-life "A Ha! Moment" on par with any thief of any heist film having his "A Ha! Moment" in relation to the bank that will bring him the Big Score so he can retire to an island somewhere.

We are introuced to Petit's former girlfriend Annie Allix, a woman who seems to understand she is relegated to the sideline in his life and he will call her onto the playing field when he sees fit. She was taken with him and is still taken with him, and how could you not be? The guy's a package of passion, man. He rarely seems able to sit still as he expounds on his tale in the present day, standing up, bounding about the room, waving his arms, and probably dramatizing various parts of the story for effect. He's a showman, after all.

We are introduced to his accomplices, most notably his one-time best friend Jean Louis Blondeau who seemed to lend a necessary reality to the situation that Petit could not bring on his own.

The film flashes back to a couple of Petit's other spectacular tightrope walks, over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and across Notre Dame Cathedral where several breathless black & white still photos make it appear as if he is truly walking on air.

Petit briefly addresses the question of how he came to be what he was with a few lines about being a "climber" as kid but quickly dismisses it with, "Who knows? Who cares?" And that, in a nutshell, can be used to sum up the film's almost non-existent backstory. How did he get funding for his various adventures? How did he come into contact with the various Americans who helped him get fake IDs for the WTC and onto the roof of the building initially? Who knows? Who cares?

Much like Petit himself, the film has a single focal point and follows it relentlessly. Nothing else matters at all. A heartbreaking moment near the end shows the present day Jean Louis explaining not in so many words that he and his best friend had a severe falling-out in the wake of the WTC walk. He doesn't address it in depth (Petit doesn't address it at all) and makes it clear that he doesn't need to. Together the two of them made sure that this grand piece of high altitude artistry came off and it still lives today. It happened. The event - that's all that matters.

September 11 is never mentioned and because it isn't the film becomes perhaps the most poignant of all memorials to the Twin Towers. Seen in this light they seem far more than, shall we say, architectual martyrs. It was George Leigh Mallory who said when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, "Because it's there." But Petit, and the others, appear to believe the Twin Towers were there because Petit needed to walk between them.

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