Movie Review: Man On Wire

Man On Wire2008. Starring Philippe Petit. Directed by James Marsh.

Philippe Petit is trying to explain how he took the first steps onto the wire. He has been drawing it out over the course of the movie, talking about the planning, about procuring the supplies and sneaking them into one of the Twin Towers, about hiding under a tarp on the top floor as a security guard stood just feet away. One false step — even before walking out onto the roof — and his “fantasy” would be over before it was begun.

The dream of walking on a wire between the towers began for him many years before, and if it didn’t happen right now, it would likely never happen. The wire was stretched across, the winds became calm, and the mist rose to reveal a clear day. He stepped out on the wire. “Death was close,” he remembers. “No shit,” I thought, watching this documentary between my fingers.

I don’t like heights. I get dizzy just imagining the view straight down past a very thin wire between the Twin Towers. I wouldn’t have watched Man On Wire if the man in question wasn’t doing most of the talking in the documentary — proof that he survived the very simply insane stunt. For me, it was the scariest movie of the year.

Petit had already made tightrope walks between the towers on Notre Dame and above traffic on the Sydney Harbor Bridge. One day a friend receives a postcard of the newly constructed World Trade Center towers with a line draw between their tops. The plan was on. Man On Wire unspools the August 7, 1974 stunt as a caper, with all the bit players weighing in, the loosely organized gang pouring over plans and making scouting trips to the buildings.

Watching the construction of the towers, with workers climbing the floors and dangling from windows, is eerie for multiple reasons. The scouting that Petit and his gang conduct on the buildings seems unbelievable today, especially their ability to move thousands of pounds of materials to the top of one tower. And even as the final steps were being taken, the plan was in danger of falling through. The wire was extended across the space with a bow and arrow — in the dark, the archer couldn’t see the signals Petit was giving. The wire being pulled across almost fell from the roof. A security guard wandered onto the staging area and nearly discovered them. But as dawn broke, the building was quiet, the wire secured, and nothing left to do but walk out into the void.

Petit is an odd fellow, as you might expect, given to talking about what he does with a fantastic, childlike excitement, but what he does is truly astonishing. For 45 minutes he strolled back and forth on the wire, stopping to kneel, then lie down on his back, get back up and look directly at the ground below him. When the police arrive, he walks near them and then out of their reach. He quits the wire only when the police threaten to pick him up with a helicopter. He is arrested, then released with trespassing and disorderly conduct charges dismissed in exchange for a benefit performance.

But the performance he gave on top of those still-familiar buildings 35 years ago is still amazing. And for me, nearly unbearable to watch, even knowing how it turned out.

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