James Marsh's bright-eyed documentary Man on Wire is the unaccountably thrilling story behind that nearly quarter-century-old exploit, shot in much the same proficient and playful manner as would befit the man who did it. The tightrope walker was Philippe Petit, a prank-prone street performer and theatrical jack of all trades who had trained himself as an accomplished high wire artist. Since walking on a wire in a circus tent with a long pole for balance simply didn't fit his personality, Petit graduated to illegal performances, like walking between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral and the towers on the Sydney harbor bridge. Then he set his sights on the Twin Towers.
One of the best things about Man on Wire is how little it tries to decipher Petit's actions, even with the copious amount of time it spends interviewing him and his accomplices. An inveterate performer who comes off like a fey, Gallic Danny Kaye, Petit is too busy waving his hands and detailing his wild desires in heavily-accented English to spend much time looking in depth at his motivations. A perpetually boyish elf who apparently never met a person whom he couldn't charm into handing over their life savings, Petit just decided to do his highly illegal act, and put together a motley crew to help him pull it off.
It's in the explication of Petit's skullduggery that Man on Wire has the greatest amount of fun. Utilizing unusually well-crafted reenactments and a tongue-in-cheek manner of introducing these gentle criminals with dramatic close-ups and faux tough-guy nicknames, director Marsh establishes a pleasingly playful mood that perfectly mirrors Petit's cheekily irreverent manner. It's a mood requiring a light touch that is deceptively difficult for most filmmakers to achieve, particularly someone like Marsh, who has previously shown a more gothic mentality in films like The King and Wisconsin Death Trip.
All the film's playfulness fortunately doesn't mean it skips over the many practical difficulties facing Petit and his team, from the first problem of breaking into both towers and making it up to the roofs, to evading security guards once up there, to the seemingly insurmountable engineering task of getting all the equipment up there and stringing the cable across (ultimately a bow and arrow was involved). Fortunately for Petit, his con artist ways found a receptive audience in a number of New Yorkers, including an office worker who took it all as a lark and blithely let Petit copy his security pass. Although the film doesn't spend time explicitly mourning the destruction of the towers many years later, its evocation of their stark grandeur and the sheer moxie of the locals (who seem to inhabit an easier-going and more blasé city than what currently exists) assisting Petit in his adventure is more than testimony enough.
Man on ruler.
Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st August 2008
Box Office USA: $2.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $3M
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 7.9 / 10
Director: James Marsh
Producer: Simon Chinn
Starring: Philippe Petit as Himself, Jean François Heckel as Himself, Jean-Louis Blondeau as Himself, Annie Allix as Herself, David Forman as Himself, Alan Welner as Himself, Barry Greenhouse as Himself, Jim Moore as Himself
Also starring: David Foreman
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