Man on Wire (2008)

Rating: B

Dir: James Marsh
Star: Philippe Petit, Paul McGill, Annie Allix, Ardis Campbell

In August 1974, high-wire walker Petit, along with a small cabal of accomplices, strung a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center during the night. As rush-hour began below, Petit then stepped onto the wire, and walked between the buildings for 45 minutes, a quarter-mile above the ground. While he was immediately arrested on returning to solid ground, the public acclaim for his audacious feat meant no charges were pressed. 35 years later, Marsh’s documentary revisits the event, with a mix of archive footage, stills, interviews with the participants and re-enactments, both of the raid itself and Petit’s preparations in France (McGill plays the young Petit). Marsh brings the feel of a heist flick to proceedings, an appropriate approach given the illegality of the act – though as everyone involved points out, it’s a victimless crims.

As such, the movie works effectively, even if you already know what the final outcome is: there are moments of impressive tension, as the two teams make their way to the top of the respective towers, dodging guards and taking advantage of some lucky breaks on the way. The movie also makes an effort to try and explain why someone would want to do what Petit does, though is somewhat less successful in this area. “There is no why,” comments the daredevil after the event, as he’s being taken away by the police. Perhaps slightly more informative is his subsequent quote: “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.” Which reminds me of George Mallory’s famous and perhaps apocryphal response when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: “Because it’s there.”

While it’s hard for us earthbound mortals to appreciate the appeal of putting your life on the (literal) line, you do get some sense of the fascination, and the devotion which Petit inspires on those who supported his mission speak to that. However, perhaps the movie’s greatest feat is to reclaim, somewhat, the memory of the World Trade Center. While it will never be anything else than the place where 2,750 people died on 9/11, it’s now possible to think of it as a place where, for an hour, a man also lived, in a way no-one else ever will.