Suspense Story

Brian Sholis on Man on Wire

Left: Philippe Petit. (Photo: Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris). Right: James Marsh, Man on Wire, 2008, still from a color and black-and-white film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. Philippe Petit.

EARLY ON IN Man on Wire (2008), an entertaining documentary about high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s quest to “dance” between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974, not long after they were built, his then girlfriend, Annie Allix, reflects on their time together and concludes that Petit was a “megalomaniac.” We quickly learn how grand Petit’s delusions of grandeur really are: He describes his 1970s-era exploits—walking on wires strung up, for example, at Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge—as “conquering beautiful stages.” But the cloying theatricality of Petit’s talking-head moments is counterbalanced by director James Marsh’s judicious cutaways to playful reenactments and to breathtaking archival footage.

The story, which involves a cast of goofy characters that includes Petit’s childhood friends and people he met while performing on city streets around the world, is pitched as an epic quest. The majority of the film chronicles in great detail the elaborate preparations for the World Trade Center performance undertaken by Petit and Co. But this tale is as notable for its evocation of a prelapsarian New York as it is for Marsh’s ability to sustain interest in a story with a known conclusion. Viewers are reminded that this is the same gritty downtown in which, a year before Petit walked between WTC 1 and 2, Gordon Matta-Clark showered and shaved atop the Clocktower Building; in the early ’70s, there was no Department of Homeland Security. And so, on the evening of August 6, 1974, Petit and his friends are inside the buildings, eluding night watchmen, shooting an arrow from the roof of one skyscraper to the other, and stringing heavy cables between them. The next morning, as crowds of workers begin their workday, a black speck appears against the sky, and thoughts of anything else—even the infelicitous use of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies as the sound track to the spectacle—fades away.

Man on Wire opens today at Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and on August 8 around the country. For more information, visit the film's website. To watch the film's trailer, click here, and to watch an interview with director James Marsh and star Philippe Petit, click here.