In Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980), in the wake of an encounter with super-intelligent extraterrestrial life, a striking montage of hot air balloons plays. The serenity of the images transcends the movie-watching experience, as the suspended orbs seem to play among the clouds.
James Marsh’s (“The King”) mesmeric documentary, “Man on Wire,” displays a similarly profound insight into tranquility, with images of wirewalker Philippe Petit poised on the edge of the world, walking between the towers of the World Trade Center. The documentary focuses on Petit’s long-standing plan to tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, and the over-the-top planning that went into the actual event, which came to life Aug. 7, 1974.
Pre-Sept. 11 imagery pervades the film, as we see extensive footage of the construction of the World Trade Center and its completion. That said, there is almost no allusion to the attacks. Nearly all painful associations with Sept. 11 disappear, as the gallantry of Petit’s feat redefines the towers as the backdrop for something magical.
Looking back on the preparations for Petit’s stunt, “Man on Wire” feels as much like a behind-the-scenes of a bank robbery as it does the planning of an elaborate feat of acrobatics. The self-dubbed World Trade Center Association (WTCA) planned meticulously, drawing diagrams, building models and staging tests with members from France, Australia and the United States.
The WTCA was fueled by the boundless enthusiasm and imagination of its leader, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit. Now almost 60, Petit recounts their mission with the eager enthusiasm of a young boy. Petit recalls sitting in the dentist’s office, seeing an image of the yet-to-be built World Trade Center and recognizing it as “the object of (his) dream.”
Over the course of the film, we see the WTCA set up shop at Notre Dame in Paris and on a major traffic bridge in Sydney, always with an eye towards New York. Each time Petit comes down off the wire, there are hordes of enthralled spectators and a swarm of cops, present in response to an illegal spectacle as much as an opportunity to see something breathtaking.
Such a setup might lead one to believe “Man on Wire” is a bit of a crime movie — the Trade Center event was quite illegal, as emphasized by all those interviewed. Though it might be hard to relate directly to the idea of wire-walking between the towers as a personal achievement, the film speaks strongly to the importance of being true to oneself. Though the reason for such an act can only be ascribed to Petit’s idiosyncratic nature, it is, more than anything, a reflection of his unmitigated determination to achieve his goal.
Petit’s imagination drives the film; his creativity and excitement are infectious, which is why it’s disappointing to see such overuse of dramatization. While there’s something to be said about painting a concrete picture for the viewer, it’s clear the filmmaker has little faith in the audience’s ability to use the mind’s eye. When narrating the most dramatic parts of his tale — and there are many — Petit’s natural gift as a storyteller is enough to win over the audience’s affection.
For Petit, walking between the towers garnered a level of fame that he could not have anticipated. But life is often funny, or at least inscrutable, in such a way. Just the same, the visual poetry manifested by Petit’s composure is an image of perseverance and inspiration.