From the August 8th Wall Street Journal (Page W1):
[As the following review is from a time-sensitive link, I have copied and pasted entire text.]
Documentary 'Man on Wire' Hits the Heights
Frenchman's '74 Feat At Twin Towers Is Tale Of Passion and Joy:
"High drama hardly begins to describe "Man on Wire," a magnificent documentary by James Marsh. Its subject is Philippe Petit, the French wirewalker who, on Aug. 7, 1974, spent almost an hour not just walking but dancing, kneeling -- with one arm outstretched in a gesture of salute -- and lying down on a cable strung 1,350 feet above the street between the tops of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.
Watch a scene from "Man on Wire." Video courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
When Petit returned to terra firma -- in handcuffs, charged with criminal trespass -- the only thing reporters wanted to know was why he'd done it. "I did something magnificent and mysterious," he recalls on camera decades later, "and everyone asked 'why why why?' There is no why." The film, which goes into national release today, takes a more fruitful approach. It focuses on the how (the paramilitary preparations make a marvelous story in themselves) and above all on the who -- a man driven by madly romantic dreams of glory, and visions of death-defying, life-affirming beauty.
Walking between the Twin Towers -- the world's tallest buildings at the time -- was only the most dramatic of Petit's feats to that point. He'd already done essentially the same thing at Notre Dame cathedral, and the harbor bridge in Sydney (where he picked a watch off the wrist of one of the cops who arrested him). Perhaps because a misstep at the World Trade Center would have been no more fatal than a fall on previous occasions at lower altitudes -- indeed, two window washers died earlier this week when they fell 40 feet at the World Financial Center -- Petit seems to have been less worried about gravity having its way than about the intricate challenges of those preparations, which took eight months, and which he likened to a bank job.
Part of what makes "Man on Wire" so enthralling, and so entertaining, is the filmmaker's skill in laying out the illegal caper's logistics, mainly through interviews with Philippe and his support team. All of them were terribly young at the time and are now middle-aged. They include three faithful French friends -- among them Philippe's girlfriend of the period, Annie Allix -- plus several American co-conspirators of varying steadfastness. (One, a pothead musician, disappeared on the night before the big event.) Mr. Marsh supplements their collective narrative with stylized re-enactments. These are not the sort of serious, pseudo-dramatic segments that Errol Morris sometimes uses, controversially, to embellish documented facts. They are wonderfully witty, exuberant interludes that simulate the tone of a spy thriller.
Another part of the enthrallment comes from the singular nature of the place, and the fateful passage of time. Yes, the run-up to Petit's matchless coup de theatre resembles a bank job. One member of the team pretends to be a French journalist on assignment. Others use forged IDs to slip past World Trade Center guards, drive a van with almost a ton of cable and rigging equipment into a subterranean garage, then smuggle all the materiel up to the top floors, where they hide all night under the noses of wandering watchmen. Unavoidably, though, the team's escapades also carry eerie resonances of terrorist attacks. The film wisely refrains from any mention of this -- no reference to the 1993 bombing, or to 9/11. The closest it comes to such comment is one heart-stopping still photograph, a sort of long-lens optical illusion, shot from below, of Petit aloft on his wire while a passenger jet high above him seems to fly toward one of the towers.
Great documentaries, and this is one, require not only great subjects but rich supporting evidence. "Man on Wire" fills the bill with stirring footage of the World Trade Center under construction, intercut with sequences of Philippe assisted by his friends as he practices for the Twin Towers wire walk in a sun-dappled French meadow marked by a sign that says, in English, "World Trade Center Association." A self-dramatizer par excellence, Philippe Petit had been documenting his own exploits, ever since his teenage years in France, in home movies, video and film. Some of the most evocative clips show him dressed in a mime's costume and a top hat, spinning around the streets of Paris on a unicycle.
Those images look as if they'd been lifted from "Children of Paradise," Marcel Carn's cinema epic set in the Paris of Balzac, and not by accident. They express Petit's sense of himself -- his entirely accurate sense of himself -- as an entertainer in the classic French tradition. (In the very first shot of Carn's film, a tightrope walker -- un funambule -- performs at a street fair; much of the action takes place in the Thtre des Funambules, and there's a startling resemblance between one of the film's stars, the late Jean-Louis Barrault, and the radiantly young Philippe Petit.)
"Man on Wire" is, among so many things, a tale of obsession -- "It was," Annie Allix says, "as if the towers had been built for him" -- and a love story. (Or, one might argue, a self-love story. Or a mnage trois involving Annie, Philippe and Philippe's wire.) Beautifully wide-eyed and passionate when she was young, Annie brings the same wide eyes, and a contagious passion, to her account of her life with Philippe in France -- "When he introduced me to his wire he never thought to ask if I had my own destiny to follow" -- and of his triumph at the Twin Towers. She also brings an awareness of their love's limit, since he betrayed her, only days after that triumph, by making love to a casual American admirer. "I saw Philippe discover what it is to be famous," Annie says with poignant regret, and the movie declines, again wisely, to belabor what followed.
James Marsh's documentary raises the bar for the genre to skyscraper height. It's an inspired piece of work flawed only by the stretching and distorting of home movies to fill a wide screen, and by a short, mawkish coda. Michael Nyman's original score is exquisite; so is the use of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending" and an Erik Satie "Gymnopdie" to accompany Philippe's aerial ballets, which are studies in ecstatic relaxation. On the wire between the towers he was so relaxed that he felt free to look down, and he claims he could hear the crowd below. There's no reason to disbelieve him."