, 94 min, 2008
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Philippe Petit (book)
Stars: Philippe Petit, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau
James Marsh’s Man on Wire is a riveting, inspired and inspiring documentary which tells the remarkable true story of a man who may be completely insane, but who knows what he wants and goes after it with such reckless abandon you can’t help but root for him all the way.
Philippe Petit was a French mime and circus performer who became a high-wire walker in Paris in the 1970s. He made headlines (and arrest reports) with his daredevil tactics – walking between towers – on first Notre Dame and then a famous bridge in Sydney, Australia. His biggest claim to fame is that in 1974, upon the erection of the Twin Towers at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, Petit walked eight times back and forth between the towers, balanced precariously hundreds of feet above the ground, tiptoing across a razor-thin wire. Some considered this the “artistic crime of the century,” but to Petit it was simply another day doing what he loved. In search of “a more interesting way to die,” Petit is part madman, part genius, and a lesson to dreamers everywhere – if you set your mind, body and will to your passion, anything is possible.
We know that Petit is okay because we see new interviews with him and his cohorts (or is it partners in crime?) in which they reflect on the fete. Marsh also intersperses this with vintage documentary footage of Petit both practicing and managing his astonishing and bold ventures at the time, as well as starkly beautiful black and white dramatizations using dead ringers as body doubles.
The film was directed by James Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip, The King), who is not known widely as a documentarian, but here has crafted a spellbinding account of an eccentric and unique man – indeed, in many ways (both in construction and subject), the film manages to feel at times like something Errol Morris could’ve made. The film is fascinating, disturbing, not without a scintilla of humor, and ultimately uplifting.
Note: Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary.