September 10, 2008

‘Man on Wire’ is part triumph, part crazy

(Documentary directed by James Marsh. Rated PG-13; 1:42. Opens Friday, Sept. 12, at Village 8 Theatres. LEO Report Card: B+)

Philippe Petit first decided to walk on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, then made it his obsession, gathering a trusty team of lackeys, perfecting his craft and researching ways to make the impossible possible. In so doing, he became master of his own singular creation. 

“Man on Wire” documents Petit’s successful yet illegal 1974 tightrope walk between the then-tallest buildings in the world. While the world watched amazed by the Frenchman’s graceful performance on the wire, the NYPD saw it differently, arresting Petit and his crew as soon as he stepped off. He had spent some 45 minutes tightroping between the buildings. 

This James Marsh-directed documentary includes interviews with the key players, personal photographs and film footage of Petit and sometimes-silly recreations of key moments in his life leading up to the walk. The way Petit confidently yet bombastically tells the story, you would think this mission was just another foolish idea from a man who loved to push limits — both physically and legally (some of his earlier tightrope accomplishments include the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbor Bridge). It’s not until you learn the exact science of walking on a wire 1,350 feet above Manhattan — the wind, the constant swaying of the buildings, dodging security, rigging heavy gear to both towers — that you begin to appreciate what Petit accomplished and how dedicated he was to succeed. “He could no longer carry on living without having at least tried to conquer those towers, because it felt like those towers belonged to him,” says girlfriend and accomplice Annie Allix. “It was as if they had been built especially for him.”

Admiration for his free-spirited confidence and self-taught tightrope abilities is never out of focus in the film. Nor are all the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. “If I die, what a beautiful death — to die in the exercise of your passion,” Petit says. “The fact that the wire-walking activity is framed by death — it’s great, because then you have to take it very seriously. It’s a little half-a-millimeter of mistake and then you lose your life.”

“Man on Wire” opens Friday at the Village 8 Theatres, in part timed with the Sept. 11 anniversary. The World Trade Center became Petit’s obsession for many years, and it’s through his eyes we revel in the Towers’ scope, beauty and relevance in history — both then and now.