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The Best of 2008: 'Man on Wire'

Man on Wire


Accomplishing one of the most outstanding feats of courage and daredevilry, tightrope artist Philippe Petit shares to the world his experiences (and lack of pitfalls) in one of the most outstanding documentaries made in recent years. What sets director James Marsh's film apart from most documentaries is the methods he uses to play with his audience. As if both Petit and Marsh were both shameless exhibitionists, the film holds no punches when it comes keeping the audience on the edge of their seat in the same manner Petit can walk above a city on the edge of death. It is obvious that when you watch the film that Petit survived multiple stunts, but it is still very remarkable how the filmmakers trick you into thinking that this "artistic crime of the century" could go wrong at any time. This is because Marsh designs this as a heist film. It is more than a simple chronicling of the event. It is exactly how Petit trained for it is in his mind as if breaking into a bank and dancing all over them.

Edited into a non-linear fashion, the film starts with tense black & white dramatizations of the men sneaking into the Twin Towers while crosscutting to interviews (back in normal color digital video) of Petit and all of his merry men. This of course was not the first time Philippe Petit made headlines. He tightrope-walked between the two extending towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge a couple years earlier. Both are obviously overshadowed by his 1974 tightrope act that, unlike his two previous illegal stunts which created mostly unrest for the city's officials, brought an entire city into the clouds with him. You will hear everything from the madcap stories of how they constantly prepared, all the ingenious ways of disguising their research whenever they visited the location, the strange collaborations they all had to make in order to get pass securities, and bizarre methods they had to implement to set up a tightrope (did I mention they had to use a bow and arrow to fire one end of the tightrope to the other building?... oops... just had to let that one out to give a taste for those who have not seen the film yet).

One of the most interesting arguments against the "merry men's" efforts is that no one actually brought a movie camera to the top (it was left with Petit's girlfriend who filmed the performance from below), but in the opinion of this reviewer, I felt it was enough for me to see stills of the actual walk because my imagination (based on the reality of it) can fill in the rest of the gaps (literally) without any trouble. It can be quite understandable that none of Petit's French and American cohorts had the stomach to constantly hide behind a camera in the event that something could go very wrong at any time, but it is riveting to know that nothing went amiss (according to them). When several interviewers questioned Marsh as to why the Twin Towers' destruction 27 years was not mentioned anywhere in the film, Marsh appropriately explains that Petit's act was "incredibly beautiful" and that it "would be unfair and wrong to infect his story with any mention, discussion, or imagery of the Towers being destroyed." I totally agree.