There are people who love professional mimes, jugglers and contortionists. I am not one of them. People like me don’t really understand why anyone would want to turn miming into a profession, aside from the fact that someone would have to pay me to pretend being trapped in a box all day. The same goes for tightrope walkers. The marvel of Man on Wire is that it makes sense of a nonsensical stunt, describing with clarity and eloquence what would drive a man to risk death for a seemingly mad, if not pointless, pursuit.
In 1974, long before “9/11” entered our lexicon, Philippe Petit walked a high wire strung between the two towers of the World Trade Centre. The Frenchman had been born with a compulsion to climb things. Self-taught in the art of tightrope walking, he garnered some publicity by walking a high wire illicitly strung between the towers of the Notre Dame de Paris and another between two pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. However, his ultimate goal was to conquer the World Trade Centre, long before it had even been built.
Through a seamless mix of actual footage of the preparation, extraordinary re-enactments and present day interviews, James Marsh’s documentary unfolds like a slick heist movie. The Two Towers, still under construction, are cased meticulously by Petit and his motley crew of co-conspirators. Through ingenuity and luck, the team evades building security and tackles the logistical nightmare of stringing the tightrope under cover of night across the 43-metre gap between buildings, 413 metres above the ground.
Only by having Petit himself on camera — charismatic, charming and infectiously passionate — does it become evident why anyone would help him with this craziness. He sees these high wire acts as moments of intense focus and clarity, beautiful in their purity of intent, untouchable and fleeting.
Despite the obvious thrills of the death-defying stunt, the most emotionally affecting moments are in the aftermath. Everyone involved emerges a changed person. When Petit’s loyal friend and longtime collaborator Jean-Louis Blondeau suddenly breaks down into tears, it seems to convey the price paid for the risks taken that day, the toll of another man’s passion. Petit himself seems to have attained his own nirvana — fearless, unfettered and still only 60-years young.
Last but not least is the shadow of 9/11. It is felt but never mentioned in the film, which was a wise, conscious decision by the director. As Roger Ebert writes, “Man on Wire is about the vanquishing of the towers by bravery and joy, not by terrorism.”