Shortly after the dawn on August 7, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped off the South Tower of the World Trade Center and onto an illegally rigged highwire. Within the next forty-five minutes, Petit made eight crossings between the still-unfinished towers, kneeling, dancing, bowing, and lying down – a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan.
James Marsh’s documentary “Man on Wire” brings to life the events of that day. Intercut with Petit’s own testimony, interviews with his co-conspirators, exquisite re-enactments, and archival footage, the completed work is one of the best documentaries you are likely to see this year.
Petit had already achieved several impressive wire-walking feats by 1974 – he had walked between the towers of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. But he was obsessed by an idea that had struck him as a teenager in 1968. Sitting in the dentist’s office one day, Petit was leafing through a newspaper when he saw a drawing of the as-yet unbuilt World Trade Center towers. He sketched a line from one tower to the next and knew that he belonged there. Along with a band of confidantes and his faithful girlfriend, Petit spent years preparing for what they dubbed “The Coup.”
Petit’s preparation included years of research. On several trips to New York, he gathered information about work schedules and construction costumes at the World Trade Centers. He impersonated foreign press in order to access the roof and take pictures for his own illegal plans, and even hired a helicopter to photograph above the towers. Though he was working closely with two fellow Frenchman and an Australian he’d known since the wirewalk in Sydney, Petit needed the help of some locals, and the incongruous group of New Yorkers with whom he teamed up seemed more like the fictional characters from a heist movie than a reliable group of guerilla artists.
Beyond the surprising cast of characters, one of the film’s innovations is its tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. As they wait overnight in the construction area of the 104th floor, Petit and his accomplice must hide beneath a tarp to evade discovery by the night watchman. The comedy of two human forms beneath a mere piece of cloth yet eluding recognition by the guard is like an Inspector Clouseau caper.
While the film has moments of great humor, its real strength is Petit. As Barry Greenhouse, one of Petit’s New York conspirators, puts it, “He sorta draws you into his world.” His passion for his art is contagious and his personal magnetism is that rare combination of childlike enthusiasm and macho ego. Watching “The Coup” unfold, you have to wonder if you would have been drawn into his artistic ambitions as well.
“I, personally, figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought it was once in a lifetime.”
– Sgt. Charles Daniels, with the Port Authority police
Struggling to choose the right words when interviewed on local television, Sgt. Charles Daniels, the police officer on scene, a man accustomed to reciting commands and confronting criminals, describes Petit’s wirewalking as dancing, inspiring a vision of beauty for all those watching the nightly news. Clearly this man was moved by what he witnessed and the emotion that comes through him becomes part of the art, extending the works reach to all those who hear his description.
“Of course, we all knew that he could fall . . . we may have thought it but we didn’t believe it.”
– Jean Francois Heckel, accomplice
Leaving the theater, I was struck by how much I wanted to believe that the people involved in this event had been changed forever. Somewhere within me is the hope that great art changes people, makes them better, makes them more human. Those people close to Petit, those who participated in his magical moment – shouldn’t they be changed? Shouldn’t Petit be a superior man? But Marsh doesn’t let me keep this illusion. The film closes with the revelation that the intimate band of people who made this event possible fell apart. In response to his sudden fame, Petit allowed his ego to run rampant, and he was both unfaithful to his lover and neglectful to his friends.
I wonder why this bothers me so. It is the common stream of events: a man achieves something remarkable and he is changed. He knows he is special. But so often the knowledge of our value seems to corrupt the potential of that moment. We could have bloomed into an even better instrument of inspiration, but we were satisfied with fame or riches instead. It is a fantastic mixture of confidence and humbleness that allows us to dream of the image of our own bodies suspended in air, confident that anything is possible, humble to the inspiration.
I commend filmmaker James Marsh for making a film that invites this sort of meditation on art and humanity without ever seeming instructional or condescending, nor sentimental and hokey. “Man On Wire” is that rare film that allows a work of art to travel farther and live longer.
Man on Wire (1 hr. 30 minutes) is based upon Philippe Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds. The film opened July 25, 2008 and is still in theaters. It was the recipient of the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.