Release Date: August 1st, 2008 (UK)
Genre: Documentary; Biography
Everybody hates the dentist. Everybody except Philippe Petit.
The Twin Towers were a symbol of innovation. A duo of iron giants, they stood over New York reminding the world that anything was, is, possible. Writing about the pair of incredible architectural feats in the past tense is probably something, even 12 years on, nobody will ever get used to.
It is this melting pot of romanticism and tragedy that surrounds the Twin Towers which gives Man on Wire an extra layer of emotional weight. But even without that, even minus the tinge of sadness you get upon remembering the towers are no longer around, Man on Wire is an absolute triumph.
The documentary recounts a story that you probably wouldn’t believe if it were a narrative film. Philippe Petit is an ordinary man, a French high-wire walker whose aspirations exceed the ordinary and go up. A long way up. Supported by his congregation of close friends, he strives to reach impossible heights and to walk on top of the world. It’s 1968, and Petit finds himself flicking through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room when he comes across an article promoting the impending construction of the world’s tallest buildings: the World Trade Center. Petit rushes out of the dentist. He doesn’t need to get his teeth checked. He’s going to walk between the Twin Towers.
Director James Marsh lets the story of Petit and his cohorts (because it is their story too) play out both through real-time interviews with the participants and by way of caper-like reconstructions of the day. The heist-esque portrayal of Petit’s attempts to the reach the top of one of the towers generates mischief and even comedy at times, particularly when Petit himself is describing his game of hide-and-seek with the guards in the building. Petit and co are, by all accounts, going against the law as the sneak their way into the buildings as maintenance men, and the group refrain from shying away from this as they retell their tale.
The lightheartedness achieved by Marsh is admirable (though the thought of walking across a wire suspended at 1,368ft does generate a nervous chuckle), however the film truly hits its stride through the group’s emotional, passionate narration of their incredible journey. Philippe and his friends, girlfriend, and colleagues all seem invested in their story — how can they not be? As the preparations develop, Petit’s metaphorical dream builds. Ironically, the main barrier in his way is the lack of physical existence of his goal: the towers do not reach completion until 1973, five years after the Frenchman darted out a dentist’s waiting room with dazzled eyes. Throughout the film, the purpose of the towers (which obviously lies in commerce, work, and the proverbial “American Dream”) becomes somewhat twisted towards Philippe’s ambition. Just for a moment the construction of the towers seems solely to be for one man to ascend and walk across them: “Of course, that’s why the towers are there… for Philippe.”
The group’s preparations take them to Sydney, Australia and the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where a suspended Philippe walks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Cathedral respectively. The second traverse sees Philippe stride above an ongoing mass, almost in a God-like manner. The underlying connotations of dreams and reaching the clouds play out as the documentary progresses, further reinforcing just how overly-ambitious Petit is. His counterparts react differently as they recount their roles in the preparations and the event itself; we see genuine outbursts of emotion ranging from tears to laughter. At times there is a frustrated sense of animosity between the members of Petit’s troupe, adding to the intense drama — is this one man’s dream for himself, or a group’s dream for one man?
As the film nears its nail-biting conclusion — and nail-biting might just be an understatement — it hits the audience with an unexpected burst of poignancy. We want Philippe to succeed, to fulfil his dream, to fulfil the dream those close to him share vicariously. Marsh intersperses the drama with astonishing ‘home-video’ footage taken of Philippe as his air-walking escapades reach spine-tingling heights (the Frenchman even draws images of his previous wire-walks on a wall of one of the towers, as if to remind himself that they are part of a natural progression). The Twin Towers are displayed often and with purpose, reminding us about the sheer scale of Philippe’s dream.
And then Philippe Petit dances at the top of the world. From below he is as small as his name proposes and even smaller still as the remarkable man obtains a pair of gigantic steel legs. The moment is extraordinary; it is profound. But it is also effortless. The tension relieves and the documentary captures a truly emotionally evocative moment. This is the real Philippe, in complete isolation, suspended above a busy world. He elates, “I must be a castaway on a desert island of my dreams”.
Man on Wire delivers bundles of heart and soul, provided by way of James Marsh’s wonderfully diced concoction of Philippe and company telling their story, backed up by grainy, very real home-video footage and jaunty re-enactments. The title of film suggests simplicity, and in a sense the visual of Philippe Petit lying in mid-air between the Twin Towers is just that, but his journey to the sky is something quite extraordinary.