Man on Wire – review
I had the good fortune to find myself sat in a preview screening of this film the other day, (as it transpires, over a month before its official release date). Consequently, what little homework I was able to do told me that this was a documentary about a tightrope walker, and it had already won two awards at this year’s Sundance Festival. To be brutally honest, I wouldn’t normally rush out to see a film about jugglers, lion tamers, or any other form of circus performer, but the Sundance seal of approval was enough to crowbar me out of my seat and onto a tube into town.
Oh alright, I admit it, I’m being deliberately crass, but purely for the purposes of illustration…
Regrettably, I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will instantly dismiss this film out of hand if that’s all they knew about it. For those that do, it’s their loss, as they will miss out on a truly transcendent piece of cinema.
You see, Philippe Petit isn’t just any old street performer. As documented in the film, he was (and still is) a self-trained wire walker who took it upon himself to perform a number of daring feats of public exhibitionism – firstly crossing between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, then across the towers at one end of Sydney Harbour Bridge, and finally (and most triumphantly) between the roofs of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
The bulk of the film is borne out of Petit’s own book “To Reach the Clouds” and to a certain extent is reminiscent of Touching the Void – the protagonists take it in turn to tell their accounts of events to the camera, whilst being inter-cut with archive footage from the time, and dramatised recreations of unfilmed scenes. Again, like Touching the Void, the fact that these people are telling their stories to camera proves from the outset that they survived this amazing experience, but that doesn’t make the journey itself any less fascinating.
Rather than a story of survival however, the entire premise is constructed as a daring heist movie, with the ultimate prize being Petit’s walk on air. The subject matter is undeniably magical and otherworldly, so director James Marsh has appropriately given his dramatised elements a pleasing Expressionistic spin that make the whole adventure seem like candle-lit silhouettes dancing across the wall whilst a Christmas tale is being told . .
One shot of the French wire-fixing crew tiptoeing up a tower’s 104th flight of stairs is evocative of the infamous sight of Max Shreck’s Nosferatu; another scene has them pulling and pushing a coil of wire like Keystone Cops. When they finally reach the roof and are unpacking their equipment, the stars in the night sky wheel frantically around them like pinpricks randomly pushed through a black card.
Petit was clearly acutely aware of the documenting his project and so there are reels of footage that he or his crew filmed of their practice camp in France; of their quarrels in New York; of his other walking conquests, and so on. Unfortunately the team were not able to film his eventual successful walk between the towers, but amidst the film’s archive news footage of the event (including a hilarious press statement from a bemused NYPD cop) are breathtaking, still photographs taken from the roof which certainly had me stamping my feet to the floor to overcome vertigo.
It is sadly inevitable that when anyone thinks of the WTC twin towers now, one cannot but help to remember the way in which they fell back down to Earth. Marsh and Petit have managed to do something extraordinary here though – for starters that fateful day is never once mentioned, and indeed there is absolutely no reason for it to be. This film celebrates the birth of the towers; the feats of human technology and engineering that were able to overcome the seemingly impossible and create something iconic. Petit reacted to this global icon and pursued his dream of conquering this pinnacle of achievement in the only way that he knew.
This is undeniably a post-9/11 film, but one that chooses not to mourn the tragedy of 2001, and instead to celebrate a magic, ethereal moment in New York’s history when a crazy alien hung in the air 450metres above ground with seemingly no desire other than to entertain and entrance an unsuspecting public.
34 years later, back on the ground, he continues to do so.