I couldn't get to any of the press screenings for Man on Wire, so I decided to get on a Rush Ticket line and (gasp!) actually pay to get into a public screening. I was third on line, and I thought I was in good shape. I mean, it was 4:45 on a Tuesday; who was going to see a documentary about the guy who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers almost thirty-five years ago?
Turns out that people in New York aren't as busy as you think, since the screening was packed to capacity. But they were in for a good show, as this documentary combined archival footage, interviews, and appropriately cheesy reenactments to tell the story of how in 1974, Philippe Petit, a French juggler and tightrope walker, managed to sneak a crew and a bunch of equipment to the top of the World Trade Center, extend a tightrope between towers, and walk across without a net.
The documentary, based on Petit's book To Reach the Clouds, intersperses re-enactments of the operation Petit and his crew of friends and other recruits executed to get to the top of each tower undetected with documentary footage of Petit's other high-wire exploits and the obsessive planning for his ultimate stunt. A climber ever since his youth, Petit is shown crossing between the towers of the famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. But his obsession, ever since the plans were first announced in the late sixties, was to walk between the Twin Towers in New York. The movie is mainly concerned with that journey, his motley crew of Frenchmen, Americans, and an adventurous Aussie, and how the obsession affected his relationship with his girlfriend Annie and best friend Jean-Louis. All the principles involved in the planning and execution of the incident speak for the film.
If you've ever heard from Petit, you know that he has sense of whimsy to match his ego, and Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh, matches that sense of whimsy. The re-enactments are made to be comical, and Petit puts on a show with just the segments in which he describes sneaking around the Trade Center in order to get to the top. The documentary footage of Petit and his crew planning the caper is remarkable; Petit, who appeared with Marsh in a post-screening Q&A, said that he met up with a film student who wanted to film his exploits as a juggler, but ended up following him around to catalog his obsessive planning.
But the documentary isn't without its emotional moments. Jean-Louis Blondeau, especially, recalls the disagreements he had with his friend during the planning phase, and notes that it forever affected their friendship. I ran into him after the screening ended and asked him if he and Petit ever re-started their friendship. He said, sadly, no; they lost touch with each other shortly after the stunt, and it's remained that way ever since.
Man on Wire, like most documentaries about a singular event, drags as we progress towards the climax; we didn't need to get into some of the details about who certain small-time members of his crew were (the stories of the two Americans on the crew are especially unnecessary), and the 90-minute could easily be cut down to fit in a one-hour cable-TV timeslot. But Petit's force-of-nature personality pulls the viewer through, making for a very satisfying recounting of an iconic event in New York's recent history.
By the way, Petit told the audience that his next big tightrope walk will take place between two of the giant statues on Easter Island. It seems like an easy shot compared to being 110 stories off the ground, but it'll make for a hell of a photo opportunity, won't it?