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Man on Wire
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On August 7th 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire and illegally rigged between the New York's twin towers. After nearly an hour dancing on the wire, he was arrested, taken for psychological evaluation, and brought to jail before he was finally released. This documentary complies Petit s footage to show the numerous extraordinary challenges he faced in completing the artistic crime of the century.
Native New Yorkers know to expect the unexpected, but who among them could've predicted that a man would stroll between the towers of the World Trade Center? French high-wire walker Philippe Petit did just that on August 7th, 1974. Petits success may come as a foregone conclusion, but British filmmaker James Marshs pulse-pounding documentary still plays more like a thriller than a non-fiction entry--in fact, it puts most thrillers to shame. Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip, The King) starts by looking at Petit's previous stunts. First, he took on Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral, then Sydney's Harbour Bridge before honing in on the not-yet-completed WTC. The planning took years, and the prescient Petit filmed his meetings with accomplices in France and America. Marsh smoothly integrates this material with stylized re-enactments and new interviews in which participants emerge from the shadows as if to reveal deep, dark secrets which, in a way, they do, since Petit's plan was illegal, "but not wicked or mean." The director documents every step they took to circumvent security, protocol, and physics as if re-creating a classic Jules Dassin or Jean-Pierre Melville caper. Though still photographs capture the feat rather than video, the resulting images will surely blow as many minds now as they did in the 1970s when splashed all over the media. Not only did Petit walk, he danced and even lay down on the cable strung between the skyscrapers. Based on his 2002 memoir, Man on Wire defines the adjective "awe-inspiring." --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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I first learned of Philippe Petit during an interview on CNN mere days after the Towers came down. The French wire walker was on a program with American George Willig, “The Human Fly,” who likewise became famous in connection with the Towers. Willig scaled the South Tower in 1977, three years after Petit’s daring wire walk (on August 7, 1974). Listening to them, it was apparent that once they got their idea—despite the very real possibility of landing in jail, never mind falling to their death—there was no turning back. They became possessed and simply had to do it.
For Petit, it was a long journey consuming a number of years, of several flights back and forth across the Atlantic, of finding ways to get some 400 pounds of equipment and three accomplices past a network of security, and most important of all, of finding a way to get a three-quarter-inch cable strung from one tower to the next, plus four guy-wires necessary to stabilize the cable, and secure it safely on both ends, without being detected. The task was as much an engineering feat as it was a test of Petit’s ability to actually step out onto the wire and perform his routine without a safety net, one quarter-mile above the streets of New York City. The lively documentary shows how he did it, and says much about his character. “To me, it’s so simple that life should be lived on the edge of life,” says Petit. “You have to exercise in rebellion, to refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a challenge—and then you are going to live your life on a tight rope.”
Along with his tightrope talent Philippe Petit had resourcefulness and considerable engineering ability. He smuggled more than a ton of equipment into the Towers under the noses of the guards, and rigged the wire by sending an arrow from one tower to the other and embroidering the wire from the fishline. His plan for the guywires was complex, and had to be, given the possibilities of wind and other problems at the top of the buildings.
During the planning stages the filmmakers use the lovers' theme from Michael Nyman's music for "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover". When Philippe is actually on the wire between the towers, they switch to Satie's "Gymnopédie". Then, as the camera pans from Philippe to the New York cops, the hectic march from "The Cook The Thief" takes over.
The sense of exultation and awe is contagious as Philippe's girlfriend tells the passersby that there is a man on a tightrope between the towers. Philippe's friends can't talk about the miraculous ascension without weeping. There is, indeed, something magical about the enormity of his dream and his accomplishment. I had a lump in my throat at the critical moment.
Predictably, the authorities and the media asked him "Why?" He found the question incomprehensible and irrelevant. A commitment like his doesn't have or need a "Why."
The entire project, from dream to planning to execution to arrest, could be regarded as a work of modern art, performance art, carried out with technological means but -- most of all -- a romantic end.
A great movie for dreamers and those who respect dreamers. Even one of the cops says, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
I could never watch Evil Knievel and his antics and his setting the Guinness Record as the survivor of "most bones broken in a lifetime" makes me shudder. This beautifully produced documentary about Philippe Petit left me feeling the same way - only a mishap here would not result in broken bones.
I more than once looked away from the screen while watching the reckless antics of Philippe. But - I will probably watch it again.