Man on Wire

Directed by James Marsh

The French are serious about having fun. Americans, on the other hand, take fun way too seriously. Case in point: In 2001, The producers of Spider-Man released a trailer for their film in which the eponymous hero was shown creating a web across the World Trade Centre and capturing a bunch of villains in a helicopter. Then on September 11, tragedy occurred. When Spider-Man was released in 2002, all traces of the World Trade Centre action sequence had disappeared. The world had already seen the Twin Towers assaulted by terrorists. They were not ready for the Twin Towers to be assaulted in art. The fact that this film is being so embraced must be a sign that we are less sensitive about those symbols.

The film is about the events of 1974 when a young man from France, Phillippe Petit, stages an illegal tight-rope walk traversing the Twin Towers. The film is structured very much like a heist film, opening with a re-enactment of the morning of the stunt and then cutting right back to 1968 when a 20-year old Phillippe Petit sees an article about the yet-to-be-built towers. At that moment he pledges to walk a tightrope between the towers. What follows is the story of how Phillippe Petit realises that dream. He illegally practices his craft on the Notredame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and gets arrested in both instances. He assembles an international group of misfits to help him with such problems as how to sneak onto the top floor of the World Trade Centre, how to rig the wire, how to account for the fact that skyscrapers actually sway as they reach higher and higher. One of his friends describes the appeal of the project as a mixture of subversiveness and innocence.

Pretty much everyone involved in the stunt was available to be interviewed in this documentary but Petit is very much the dominant character. He seems prone to exaggerating parts of his story but it’s the kind of tall-storytelling that you are willing to believe in. But what really makes Petit attractive as a character is that he is driven by a philosophy of life. The thing that stayed in my head as I was watching this is that this goal that these people sacrificed time, money and effort for is so patently illogical and whimsical. Petit gets arrested after the Twin Towers stunt and is sent to a psychologist who asks him why he did it. Petit just says there is no why. It appears that Petit just wanted to do something beautiful and was not going to accept the arbitrary rules that would stop him from doing it.

James Marsh has a lot of great material to work with here. Petit and his crew filmed and took photos of a lot of their preparation for the wire stunt and it gives great insight into the atmosphere of this group of people. Not a lot of attention is going to be given to the direction of this film but Marsh has been building up a pretty interesting resume. He’ll be best known to people as the director of The King, an independent incest-thriller starring Gael Garcia-Bernal and William Hurt but besides that film he’s made some really wacky documentaries including 1996’s The Burger & The King, a doco about the food Elvis was eating up to the moment of his death; and 1999’s Wisconsin Death Trip, an experimental doco about a deranged town in the 1890s with a score by DJ Shadow. Like Petit, Marsh seems the kind of guy to undertake projects that can’t be explained rationally.


Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008)

Now I know that I’ve already recommended this film as a double-bill, but there are strong thematic links here. (1) The French connection: Petit vs. Gondry (2) The films are both about people who take elements of their world and turn it into something beautiful: WTC vs. Ghostbusters; and (3) Both films have artists who have to contend with arbitrary rules to live the life the way they want to: Property law vs. copyright law.


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