Thursday, August 14, 2008

Taut Storytelling: Man On Wire

On the morning of August 7, 1974, New Yorkers gazed up at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and saw … nothing special whatsoever. Most of them, that is. But a fortunate few in Lower Manhattan who were near enough and farsighted enough saw – 1,350 feet above them – a speck. That speck was Frenchman Philippe Petit, walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers, without a net, without permission and seemingly without fear, for 45 minutes. Onlookers must have thought they were seeing a stunt, a cry for publicity or the act of an insane man. They weren’t. What they were witnessing was something far more profound: the realization of an almost impossible dream.

Man On Wire, the documentary by James Marsh, chronicles the evolution of that dream with impressive awareness. It’s less about the feat of derring-do than about the almost equally astonishing degree of preparation that made it happen. Petit called the project “Le Coup,” and it was roughly six years in the making. Before he ever stepped out onto the wire he had to recruit accomplices, survey the site, determine how he could get two teams and all the necessary equipment – including 450 pounds of wire – to the tower rooftops and, oh yeah, how to get the 450 pounds of wire strung across the 200-foot gap between the towers. All of this had to be done secretively, of course, and so Le Coup unintentionally adopted the traits of a low-tech Ocean’s Eleven heist – right down to the quirky inside man.

Marsh taps into to that heist spirit with some shadowy dramatizations and a moody score by J Ralph. Mostly, though, Man On Wire takes a straightforward documentary approach with talking-head accounts from Petit and his accomplices, including his emotionally supportive then-girlfriend Annie Allix. In these interviews Petit nabs the spotlight, in large part because he’s the architect, acrobat and ringleader of the project, and also because he’s a terrific storyteller. Speaking in animated English, Petit makes Marsh’s reenactments almost unnecessary, yet the dramatic devices are welcome here just the same because, unlike Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, they are never heavy-handed. They don’t need to be.

The film’s greatest asset – even greater than Petit himself – is its wealth of archival footage, which dominates the 90-minute feature. Want to know what it looked like when Petit went out on the wire? It’s here. Wonder how it looked when Petit impersonated a journalist as a means to investigate the Twin Towers when they were still under construction? That’s here, too. And there’s video of Petit’s training camp in Europe, where he practiced his wire-walking in the same fields where his accomplices experimented with methods to string the heavy wire from one tower to the next. Like Capturing The Friedmans before it, Man On Wire is an interesting story made awe-inspiringly visceral thanks to footage put in the can by the subjects themselves, long before they realized they were documenting their exploits for anyone else to see.

Over the course of the film, as we witness Petit performing stunts on his practice wire – juggling, kneeling, lying down, rolling backward – the daredevil element of Le Coup fades from consciousness. Petit expresses an awareness of his mortality, but take note that his interviews aren’t about fear or bravery, as he seems not to register the former and thus has nothing to overcome to produce the latter. From Petit’s view, the triumph of Le Coup was the achievement of something that even on logistical grounds seemed impossible. He takes as much pleasure in describing the effect of a pair of crutches on his covert surveillance exercises as he does in detailing the wire walk itself. Now almost 60, Petit seems to appreciate all the obstacles that he refused to recognize in his singular-minded youth, and the film is better for it.

As stunts go, Petit’s World Trade Center exhibition – he performed similar feats at Notre Dame in Paris and at Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia – is one of those curious artistic expressions that, despite all the planning, was lucky to have happened in the first place. The bittersweet element of Le Coup is the knowledge that it absolutely, positively could never happen again. Reminders of September 11, 2001, are everywhere in this film – everywhere, that is, except explicitly within the documentary. Which is another way of saying that neither the terrorist attacks nor the Twin Towers’ gruesome fate gets mentioned once during Man On Wire. No words are necessary. To see shots of the towers under construction in the 1960s is to note how eerily they mirror our memories of their deconstruction at what was then known as Ground Zero. For all the Americans who didn’t form an emotional attachment to the Twin Towers until they were gone – and I think that’s most of us – Man On Wire serves as an elegy for the grand structures themselves and for simpler times.

If there’s fault to be found in the film it’s that it’s an inch wide and a mile deep (tower-esque, you might say). Did Petit have a day job during his six years of planning? The film never mentions one. How did he finance all those globe-trotting flights, or his eight months in New York leading up to the big event? I would like to know those details, and to get the reflective observations of folks outside of Petit’s crew who were there that day. But I can live without them. Man On Wire is about what it’s about and nothing more, and there’s little fault in that. The movie is about the profoundness of the initial act, not about any lasting impact, and these days that’s refreshing.

Besides, the film provides some sense of what it was like to witness the until-then unimaginable exploit thanks to archival TV news footage. Referring to Petit as a “tightrope dancer – because you couldn’t call him a walker,” a wonderstruck New York cop, who couldn’t have predicted what was in store for him that morning, paints the scene plainly yet poetically: “Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.” By that definition, Man On Wire is just like being there.

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