Friday, July 25, 2008

Man on Wire’s Time

When a police officer told the press Philippe Petit’s tight-rope walk across the Twin Towers was a sight he knew he would never see again in his lifetime, he was more right than he could understand at the time. That death-defying incident is the subject of James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire (trailer here), which I thought was great when it played Tribeca, and have not changed that opinion now that its regular theatrical run begins.

Reading a 1968 article about the World Trade Center’s construction initially sparked the French daredevil’s mad ambition. He had performed unsanctioned walks at famous landmarks before, but nothing could match the scale of the Twin Towers. Pursuing that objective would entail years of planning and plenty of dumb-luck, lovingly recounted in Marsh’s film.

You didn’t just show up at the Towers and toss a line across (it involved a bow and arrow). Aerial photography, scale models, reconnaissance, forging documents, and recruiting an inside man, all figured into Petit’s so-called “Coup,” as well. It is surprising how absorbing all this prep work is when Petit and his cohorts relive those conspiratorial days.

Although never disrespectful to memories of the World Trade Center, Marsh made the conscious decision to avoid references to September 11th, focusing exclusively on that one moment of time in 1974 and the events leading up to it. It is hard to say if that approach is entirely successful, because the weight of that later tragedy hangs over the film at all times.

However, in an unexpected way, Wire is a corrective to a film like The Wackness, which waxes nostalgic for the pre-Giuliani New York, because it was so much easier to buy drugs in the City then. Of course, it was not such a party for honest New Yorkers, who had to work and live amid the chaos. Wire perfectly captures the significance of both Petit’s unbelievable walk as well as sheer feat of engineering the World Trade Center itself represented. Both gave New Yorkers hope that incredible things could still happen in the City, even at its grimmest and grungiest low point.

Blending archival footage shot by Petit’s crew with idiosyncratic recreations, Wire has a distinctive look that is compulsively watchable. Surprisingly, it also elicits some real emotion from Petit’s collaborators, nearly thirty years after the Coup. Altogether, Wire is a totally engaging piece of documentary filmmaking, opening today in New York at Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza.