by Peter Danish
On August 7, 1974, the sky was dark and threatening, the winds were approaching ten knots and the chance of rain was sixty percent. Despite these harbingers of bad-tidings, at 7:15 a.m., Philippe Petit stepped off the South Tower of the still not quite completed World Trade Center in New York onto a 3/4″ in diameter steel cable.
“I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’-because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’-approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire….And when he got close to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle….He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again….Unbelievable really! Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.” Thus reported Port Authority Police Department Sgt. Charles Daniels, who was dispatched to the roof to bring Petit down.
Those of us old enough to remember the event probably have no idea the kind of subterfuge and intrigue that went into the planning and daring execution of the stunt.
Man on Wire is a new documentary film directed by James Marsh which chronicles Philippe Petit‘s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center and the more-than-military precision of the strategy and execution. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize: World Cinema Documentary and the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary.
At the core of the documentary is the question: “what in God’s name would every possess someone to try such a certifiably insane stunt?“ Unfortunately, that question remains unanswered. The 24-year-old Petit made eight crossings between the towers, a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan, in an event that lasted just short of an hour; during which time, in addition to walking, he sat on the wire, danced, while lying on the wire, chatted amiably with a seagull circling above his head. (the gull no doubt as confused by his presence as the bewildered onlookers below) The extraordinary and audacious high wire performance made headlines around the world, but when asked why he did it, Petit would only reply in the most banal way: “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”
At its best, the film is more than simply a documentary; it’s a thriller, as Petit’s entourage plans the stunt as though it were a major international jewel heist. At its worst, the film degrades to some unexplainably cheesy “low-fi” reenactments of incidents that look like something left over from the History Channel. But the biggest problem with the film is its main character who is essentially a mime and not a particularly compelling one. One almost wished Petit would come out with some charming witticism or deep thoughts about the death-defying act, something, anything – but instead he merely clowns and mugs for the cameras, leaving the audience not cheering for him or even terribly worried about him but rather thinking: “What’s wrong with this guy? I wouldn’t be surprised if he kills himself.”
Despite all its flaws the film is ultimately very entertaining and especially in light of the 9/11, the film’s glorious shots of the Trade Center add a deep-rooted sense of nostalgia for New Yorkers. The story reaches and touches a soft spot on the concept of “creating art,” juxtaposed against mortality; the idea of creation versus risk. Through the film, the viewer realizes that to make such a stunt come to life, the performer needs the support of a great number of people who share his vision (however inarticulate it may be) and that to bring such a group together, to plan and execute, requires a person of some incredible vision or personal charisma – to say nothing of his talent! How he convinced his team to sneak a half-ton of equipment up 100 flights of stairs is amazing enough. But the look on his technical supervisor’s face when he learns that they plan to get the cable from one tower to the other using a bow and arrow is worth the price of admission alone. “An arrow? An arrow? Like a bow and arrow?” The audience cannot help but go along for the ride when face with such unbridled imagination and audacity.
In the end, what kind of man risks his life “dancing” on a cable one quarter of a mile above the earth? Crazy? Arrogant? Conceited? Foolish? You must draw your own conclusions, in that respect, Man on Wire leaves you hanging.
Man on Wire was presented by the Rivertown Film Society as part of their ongoing mission to bring off-beat, high quality films to audiences outside of NYC. The series runs every Wednesday night at Riverspace Arts In Nyack. The Rockland County arts center has taken a page from James Lipton’s popular TV celebrity interview show with their “Conversations at Riverspace” series. WQXR radio host Elliott Forrest does live Q&As with Hollywood superstars. Last month, Forrest grilled Alec Baldwin; previous guests have included comedian Lewis Black, playwright Edward Albee, and actors Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner. And on October 18, director Jonathan Demme took over the host’s chair to discuss the art of acting with none other than Ms. Meryl Streep. Check out Riverspace.org.
(Editor’s note – Man on Wire is released on Region 2 UK DVD on 27th December following its theatrical release earlier this year)