In a beautifully filmed documentary, “Man on Wire” is a visual treat for any movie lover. The recent Academy Award winner for Best Documentary follows the story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who walked between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. James Marsh’s film is a kind of love story about Petit’s dream to conquer the two towers in a coup that resulted in his arrest. The title of the film comes directly from the police report after he made the walk—the police didn’t know how to describe the stunt, so they just printed ‘man on wire.’
The film focuses on Petit and his team of friends from around the world who saw his determination and wanted to participate in the stunt. The story opens with Petit learning of the construction of the twin towers when he was a young boy—he was instantly drawn to the buildings and later decides it is his destiny to try and tightrope walk between them. In the early 70s, Petit falls in love with a woman named Anne, who continued to support his utterly dangerous lifestyle throughout the time period.
Petit first set up wires at the Notre Dame and in Australia and was arrested for both of the illegal acts. Despite these minor setbacks, Petit became even more obsessed with finding out how he could take on the twin towers. In this sense, the movie becomes a story of a heist—the audience is treated to the inside scoop on how Petit and his friends got past security and how they found the best way to get all of their heavy equipment to the top of the World Trade Center buildings.
With photographs and footage filmed from the 1970s (along with reenactments), Marsh is able to tell Petit’s life in a fantastical and yet realistic way. In a way of adding to the telling of the story, Marsh uses current interviews of the cast to get what happened in their own words. Thus, there are interviews with a much older Anne remembering those years of blindly following Petit and the other men recalling the many lengths they went through to pull off the event.
The best element of the film (besides the footage of the actual stunt) is the interviews with Petit himself. Although this stunt was completed decades ago, Petit still has a clearly evident fire and passion for what he accomplished. The man wiggles in his chair from excitement and wildly gestures while he speaks. The movie could hardly have been as entertaining without Petit’s showmanship. When they accepted the Academy Award in February, Petit came on stage and balanced the Oscar on his chin.
The most awe-inspiring moment of the film is when Petit actually is on a wire over 100 stories in the air. He balances on the wire between the two towers, dancing and lying on his back on the wire. The audience can’t help but think to themselves, “This guy must have been crazy,” but there is a magical calm in that moment when the camera captures a man finally reaching his dream. Actual footage of the event of the stunt is the most touching aspect of the movie.