Friday, October 3, 2008

EIFF: Man on Wire

In 1974, Philippe Petit set up a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across it. In fact, he crossed it eight times, spending 45 minutes on a wire 110 stories above the ground.

It would be hard to make a dull documentary out of such a remarkable story. After all, how could a man who snuck into the World Trade Center to do a wire-walking performance be boring? But even beyond the obvious interest of the subject matter, this is an exceptional documentary, well-crafted and haunting. At times, it is part love story, charting Petit’s obsession of the towers from afar, showing the towers being built alongside images of his childhood, as if their meeting was somehow destiny (as one friend of Petit says, the towers were built for Philippe, of course).

At other times, it feels like a heist movie as it follows the elaborate plotting and preparation required in setting up the stunt. Petit cases the joint, as if it were a bank he was breaking into. He takes pictures, makes diagrams, and builds models to figure out where to place the wire. He impersonates a French newspaper journalist and manages to get in with a couple of friends in order to take photographs of the top of the building and quiz workers on safety hazards. True to heist movie form, there’s even an inside man.

Petit possesses an undeniable hint of megalomania. As his former girlfriend notes, when she met him, it was just assumed she would follow his destiny—whatever path she might have for her own life, it was secondary to his own. Still, the man is incredibly charismatic. As he describes his obsession, his plans, his great schemes, he talks rapidly, hands whirling about as if he were physically conjuring up his memories. He’s a superb story-teller, witty and self-dramatizing, and yet his intensity is never off-putting.

Maybe this is because there is a purity to Petit’s goal. He doesn’t seem preoccupied with wealth or fame. He just wants to walk between the towers because they’re the tallest in the world, because it would simply be a great thing to do and share with others. You start to understand his mania when you actually see the wire walk—the event is captured in stills and video footage so grainy that sometimes it seems like the wire isn’t even there, that he actually might be walking on thin air. In one image, he has a great, broad grin on his face, caught in mid-laugh. In another, he lies down on the wire, completely casual and calm. Having conquered such height, he makes it seem like the distance between the sky and ground has collapsed. He might as well be inches from the street.

It’s a remarkable moment, and the film allows it to speak for itself. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone could possibly put words to such a moment. When one of Petit’s childhood friends and co-conspirators tries to explain what happened on that day, he can’t do it. He trails off, buries his face in his hands, and simply cries.

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