Sunday, February 22, 2009

#125: Man on Wire


Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
Released August 1, 2008 (U.K.)

"If I died, what a beautiful death... to die in the exercise of your passion!"

Man on Wire is essentially a documentary presented as a sort of historical crime film. It tells the story of one of the greatest crimes ever conceived... and yet a crime which hurt absolutely no one and even helped illuminate the beauty of the crime scene.

That crime? The crime of tightrope walking, of course.

In 1974, tightrope walker/acrobat/larger-than-life personality Philippe Petit and his team of assembled collaborators sneaked into the World Trade Center towers and installed a tightrope that stretched the 200 foot distance between the buildings. How they pulled of their heist is at the heart of Man on Wire.

Rightfully awarded an Oscar the other night, the documentary tells the story of how Petit first came across drawings of the World Trade Center, years before they were fully constructed, and immediately knew his fate was to walk between the 1300 foot tall buildings. It was lucky for Petit that he had a magnetic, determined and charismatic personality -- not only because it attracted a (fairly) faithful team of co-conspirators but also because it kept him for doing any significant jail time. These days, a stunt like this would get him thrown into Guantanamo.

Some viewers may see Petit's stunt as reckless or careless. Those of you who can step back and really appreciate this kind of moment where a human being does something no other human being has done before, you're going to love this movie. I will never, EVER know what it's like to have walked a thousand feet above New York City... to have laid down on my back on a cable half an inch wide and stared up at the sky, but thanks to Petit, I can respect and even covet the kind of insanity it would take to go there.

There's a lame joke here somewhere about getting my head out of the clouds. Oh, there it was.

The movie combines interviews with Petit and his multi-national crew of friends with footage of their preparation and wordless re-enactment scenes. I'm usually wary of any staged footage in documentaries, but it works perfectly here. The music is beautiful, the interview subjects are expressive and interesting and the photos/footage of Petit in action is riveting.

Man on Wire earns extra points for never discussing the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. You won't be able to help but think about that day as you watch the movie, but it just makes Petit's love and knowledge of the buildings (he makes a wooden replica of the two rooftops as part of his meticulous planning) and his feat that much more bittersweet knowing what we know now.


For more on Man on Wire:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official movie site

The Man on Wire trailer:

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