Saturday, November 8, 2008

Man On Wire

"Exercise Your Passion"

There is a moment in this superb documentary where the audience gasps in wonder. It is August 7th, 1974. Phillipe Petit, wire-walker extraordinaire, has just begun walking the tightwire that has been rigged between the two towers of the still-under-construction World Trade Center. He is 840 metres above the ground, and in his first initial nervous steps, he is "getting to know his path." To fall is certain death.

Then, suddenly, one of the men who helped pull off "Le Coup," as the conspirators called it, explains that Petit broke into a grin, and the next shot in the film is a picture of him smiling broadly, as if knowing a secret, and as the man himself says in the film, he was thinking "Now I can perform." He crossed the path eight times in 45 minutes, at points, lying down on the wire, kneeling on it, and finally, sitting and taking in the sight below him. As one of the policemen trying to coax him back said later, amazed, "I knew I was seeing something I would never see again."

"Man On Wire"* (directed by
James Marsh) is such a wild film about obsession and craft that one can't help but admire the man and the feat that inspired it. Petit had begun a quest to wire-walk across various structures in the world; he'd already walked between the spires of Notre Dame cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, but had his sights set on the ultimate challenge--the still-being-built WTC in New York. Fortunately, the group surrounding Petit was filled with artists and creative types, who filmed his training and some of the plotting sessions to pull off "Le Coup." It's an extremely well-documented exercise, and any gaps--specifically stealing into and hiding out in the South Tower and setting up the wire apparatus on the roof--are recreated by actors.

The film is full of humor--Petit, now at 60, is still quite a showman--and the interviews with the participants are full of wry comments, while at the same time, quite emotional--when recalling "the walk," one of the riggers breaks down completely, overcome by the magnitude of the event and the aplomb with which it was accomplished.

One shakes one's head in wonder at the audacity and courage it took to pull it off (and Petit was scared and quite agitated before setting foot on the wire, but determined to fulfill his dream) and moved by the enjoyment of the experience Petit displayed that day. Thirty four years later, and the towers gone, the act still resonates through time and memory.

"Man On Wire" is a matinee.

*The title comes from the terse explanantion of the crime on the police booking sheet.

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