Phillipe Petit comes across as fairly barking, but then you would have to be in order even to consider breaking into the World Trade Center, climbing to the summit, and then erecting and walking across a high wire nearly 1,400 feet above New York. Yet this is exactly what he managed to achieve on the morning of August 7 1974, an event chronicled in this entertaining documentary feature from director James Marsh. What comes through from it all is the idea that a feat which is so visually simple, technically complex, and utterly absurd can still hold so much meaning to one man, his friends, and also the wider world.
It is a little difficult to take everything that Petit says entirely seriously; his constant describing of things as ‘beautiful’ and his playing down of the dangers involved in his escapades suggest a highly romanticized, and dare I say French, view on life and his craft. So we have to go on trust with his claim that it was as a young boy sitting in a dentist’s waiting room reading a newspaper article about the proposed construction of the world’s tallest building that he first developed the idea of doing this high-wire stunt to end all stunts. In one of several staged reconstructions we see the young Petit scribble a line between the two towers’ peaks, at once a simple piece of defacing and a signal of serious intent.
Following a series of smaller walks at Sydney Harbour Bridge and Notre Dame Cathedral, he slowly began to plan the impossible. Director Marsh chooses to intercut the events of the day of the walk with actual footage and reconstructions detailing the meticulous preparations in the months leading up to the big day. It is bizarrely comic at times; his rag-tag bunch of cohorts are a shambolic lot, somewhat ironically introduced to us one-by-one with dramatic spotlit facial close-ups. The film plays events like a classic heist movie, the ‘crime’ of course an artistic rather than financial one, and his conspirators less Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001), more I Soliti Ignoti (1958).
At the centre of it all is Petit himself: hyper-animated, hyper-eccentric, clearly a man who enjoys the limelight, yet always engaging and aware of the quixotic nature of his great dream; someone less endearingly charming would almost certainly come across as dangerously obsessive. What is incredible is his own self-belief; he appears to have had no doubts that he would be able to pull it all off without meeting a messy end on the sidewalk below. The peripheral players – his girlfriend, Annie, and his long-standing team of Jean-Francois and Jean-Louis – are genial about things until asked to reflect on the longer-term effects of the act: the celebrity status that it brought Petit did not extend to them, and we learn that it marked a painful end to their friendships, one moment of real sadness in the film.
The build-up to the main show is a little lacking in drama – which appears to be why the film is structured in the intercut fashion that it is – but there is enough anecdote to keep things moving along at a reasonable pace. When the main attraction comes, there is an understandable lack of actual footage – we are, of course, in the days before camera phones and YouTube – but the sense of spectacle is enough. What tickled me especially was the official reaction to what was happening – policemen unable to apprehend him whilst on the wire, and afterwards the inability to specify any real serious ‘crime’ that he had committed.
The title Man on Wire comes from the police report of the incident, and deserves to go alongside “Houston, we have a problem” as a great understatements of official reporting. Yet the simplicity of this decscription seems to capture the essence of what Petit is about. The story made the front pages of most of the major newspapers all around the world. In one truly extraordinary act, he was, albeit temporarily, able to stop the world and make it collectively look up at what simple beauty one man with a dream can achieve. Watch, and be inspired.