Re-enactments have become all the rage in documentaries. Rather than simply allowing talking heads to espouse details of past events, filmmakers stage them with lookalikes and settings that are approximations of actual locations and occurrences. Sometimes these re-enactments go too far, more intent to seem like works of fiction than documentaries, but sometimes they hit just the right notes and leave us with a deliberately heightened sensation of the ways thing were, not unlike how crucial events of our past become, if not larger than life, heightened to a greater degree than what took place in real time.
James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” (2008) is one such documentary. Involving Philippe Petit and a crew of several men that snuck into the World Trade Center in 1974 so he could famously walk on a tightrope between the two towers, the film imagines this as a heist and often produces fuzzy black and white images that elicit a wondrous kind of dreamy haze, as if the principal subjects are returning to these landmark moments in memories aboard an Amtrak bound for some faraway destination, as if this is all becoming communicated to us in a dream.
My favorite moment, taken to even greater heights by the momentous soundtrack, involves Petit’s accomplice, Jean-Francois Heckel, on Tower One who exclaimed with a not unnoticeable grin of the joyful that “the Statue of Liberty, the UN building, all looking so tiny. It was magnificent.” He continues: “And the sounds as well, the police sirens all night long. It was all so alive! And we were kings!” God, it’s grand, and in this moment, Marsh offers an opaque black & white shot of Lady Liberty in the distance, how she might have looked on August 7, 1974 from 102 stories up, through the darkness, in the midst of such marvelous real world drama. But that’s all we get. And I wonder, is that all we should get?
I mention this because director Robert Zemeckis is set to drop a dramatized version of these events on us this forthcoming fall in a film called “The Walk.” Now, before we go further, I want to make clear that I am not impugning “The Walk’s” quality sight unseen. That’s not my bag. Perhaps it’s an impeccably crafted motion picture, rendered with great artistry and acted with aplomb. If I saw “The Walk” I would judge it as a standalone piece, separate from “Man on Wire”. But that’s the thing, I’m not going to see the “The Walk.”
I’m reminded of the Bill Simmons piece on the 2008 Summer Olympics basketball gold medal game between the United States and Spain. He wrote: “And that’s why I hope neither NBA TV nor ESPN Classic ever replays this game. It belongs to me and the lucky few who watched it live and sweated it out.” I was one of the lucky few. I got up to watch it in the middle of the night. I remember the tension and the joy and the sheer breathlessness of the entire event. It’s selfish, sure, but I get where Simmons was coming from because to experience it as it happened was this treasure that belonged to those of us watching in real time and no one else. And for Zemeckis to grant us access to what Petit’s private moment...
I recognize the semi-absurdity of this stance. After all, movies are based on real events all the time. Should we have no movies based on real events? Should “Zero Dark Thirty” have its memory wiped? Should “Bonnie and Clyde” be put down the incinerator shaft? Well, no and no. In principle I have no objections to movies based on real life events. These movies can not only re-create, they can re-assess, examine, consider, and impart wisdom. And the majority of “The Walk”, no doubt, was already dramatized in “Man on Wire.” But I’m not talking about those things; I’m talking about the one detail “Man on Wire” did not dramatize, not truly – that is, The Walk itself. In “Man on Wire” we saw the walk from a distance; we saw it in still photographs; we saw it from above and below; it was real but it was not tangible, not to us.
“I looked all the way down,” Petit himself said of the moment in his walk when he sat down on the wire and gazed upon the expanse spread out below him, “to see something in my life that I would never see again.” We were not on that wire; we did not live it; it is not ours. He saw what he saw and we did not. And I don’t think we deserve to.