Wednesday, August 20, 2008

High wire

Man on Wire

I don't watch many documentaries, and I don't usually write movie reviews, but "Man on Wire" is compelling, and no one whom I've talked with recently seems to know about it.

On August 7, 1974, a man walked a tightrope strung surreptitiously between the towers of New York's World Trade Center. Philippe Petit, a French funambulist, magician and street performer, became entranced by the towers as a teenager and spent years planning the ultimate guerrilla performance art.

The movie does a brilliant job of laying out all the details in the manner of a thriller or a heist film. It shouldn't be suspenseful: we know how it ends. The 50-something Petit gleefully narrates throughout the film. But the viewer is caught up, in the same way that Petit's comrades must have been, by the details of "le coup" and the sheer outrageousness of it all.

As the plan gets more and more complicated, you become convinced that all involved are fools. A co-conspirator baldly admits that he got high the night before the event, that he smoked pot "every day for 35 years, so why should that day have been any different?"

Then one by one, Petit's friends describe how they realized, at different times, that their grand adventure could also be considered assisted suicide. Only one person dropped out because of his misgivings.

I wondered how director James Marsh would present the wire-walking itself, as there is no film footage of Petit on the wire, only still photography. But the photos are unforgettable.

In one picture taken just before the walk, Petit's eyes are huge and his face is like stone. He looks completely terrified.

Halfway across, Petit realizes that the wire is sound and that the thing can actually be done, that he might live through it. A friend of Petit who assisted with the rigging chokes up on the screen as he recalls this moment, when Petit's face lit up, "and we knew he would be all right."

Then there is another photo of Petit on the wire, grinning with what looks like sheer delight. It's the most moving part of the film.

Reality does intrude on the fairy tale; you can't keep it at bay. Several times I resisted the urge to nudge my young companions and whisper: I was there, I walked down that concourse once, I stood on that observation deck, and all of it is gone.

There was a horrid moment at the start of the film where suddenly I was looking at a pit full of rubble. I felt betrayed. I'd read that the movie didn't refer to the destruction of the towers at all, so what was this??

After a second or two, I saw that the footage was obviously old, that what we were viewing was construction, not devastation. Shots of the towers as they rose were paired with pictures of Petit as a child, climbing things and doing magic tricks.

Everyone who witnessed the sky walk seems to run out of words trying to describe it. Even the police sergeant being interviewed for television about Petit's arrest is a fascinating study. He appears to be trying to speak soberly and according to procedure, but he just can't do it. With a deadpan expression, he refers to the "tightrope dancer... because what he was doing, you just couldn't call it walking."

As Petit was put into a police car, to be hauled off for booking and a psychiatric review, reporters shoved microphones into the open window, demanding, "Why did you do it?" Petit found the question amusing, and "very American." "There is no `why,'" he said, chuckling.

At some point during the movie, I stopped asking "Why?" and just appreciated the passion of the man, crazy or not.

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