Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tribeca: Man on Wire

Before September 11th, the most vivid memory many New Yorker had of the World Trade Center was Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 death-defying high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Taking its title from the incident’s police report, the new documentary, Man on Wire, tells the story not just of Petit’s walk, but the painstaking planning and blind luck which made it possible. Directed by James Marsh, it screens at Tribeca this week, with a theatrical release scheduled for August.

Petit is something of a Captain Kirk character, always looking to go where no man has gone before. He had performed previous unsanctioned “clandestine” walks at Notre Dame and the Sydney Opera House, but his imagination had been captured by a 1968 article about the WTC construction, ultimately setting in motion the arguable stunt of the century.

Wire often seems more like a caper movie than a documentary, relishing the Mission Impossible style preparations. You didn’t just show up at the Towers and toss a line across (it involved a bow and arrow, believe it or not). Aerial photography, scale models, reconnaissance, forging documents, and recruiting an inside man, all figured into Petit’s so-called “coup” and we see all these steps lovingly explicated.

The animated Petit was probably difficult to sit down for his interviews and impossible to shut up, once they had started. While his segments are quite entertaining, the interviews with his unindicted (but in some cases deported) co-conspirators carry surprising emotional weight. For his then girl-friend and close colleagues, the WTC walk would be a culminating moment in their relationships. Even thirty some years removed from the experience, it still clearly holds great meaning for them.

While never disrespectful in any way, Marsh made the conscious decision to avoid references to September 11th, focusing exclusively on the events leading up to that one moment of time in 1974. It is hard to say if that works though, because the weight of that tragedy hangs over the film at all times. When a police officer tells reporters at the time that he knew he was seeing something he would never see again in his lifetime, it takes on obvious added layers of meaning. However, Wire does perfectly capture its own historical moment, during New York’s grungy period. In yet another quirk of fate, Petit made his walk the day before Pres. Nixon’s resignation, giving the film a recurring Watergate motif.

Director Marsh and cinematography Igor Martinovic tell much of the story through highly stylized re-enactments that suggest Errol Morris on steroids. The film also relies on video shot by Petit’s crew during the coup itself, which dramatically illustrates the enormity of the Towers and the unbelievable nature of their mission. Nicely complemented by Michael Nyman’s pseudo-classical score, Wire is compulsively watchable.

Petit did indeed go where nobody will ever go again—1,360 feet in the air, between the Twin Towers. Years later his walk continues to hold a peculiar fascination for New Yorkers. Everyone I have mentioned Wire to have responded with enthusiasm, suggesting it might be a sleeper hit when it is released in August. They will enjoy it. It also screens again at Tribeca on Sunday.