Sunday, August 10, 2008

High Wire

On the morning of August 7, 1974, while many New Yorkers were hurrying to work, a lithe Frenchman named Philippe Petit was more than 100 stories above them, walking from the top of one of the Twin Towers to the other and back again. The story of this amazing and unlikely feat is told in the fantastic new documentary Man on Wire. Why did Petit do it? Well, it's almost the same answer as the one given by George Leigh Mallory when he was asked why he was attempting to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there." Petit, too, is driven by simple motivation. He's a performer, and he thinks that to walk on a tightrope between the buildings would be an act of incredible beauty.

Told through archival footage, photography, recreations of the events, and present-day interviews with Petit and his co-conspirators, Man on Wire is, appropriately, beautifully made. Petit, who clearly lived to tell the tale, is a completely engaging interviewee, filling his story with drama and hyperbole, and making us believe that such an impossible stunt is not even much of a challenge for him. His team — a mix of French, Australian, and American participants — are equally swept up in Petit's passion, and look like they'd do it all again if they could. The film, which takes its name from the police report documenting Petit's "crime," doesn't fully explain the why or the how, or even go into why Petit is so fascinated with scaling such great heights, but that's alright. It tells a very enjoyable story, and it makes Petit out to be an inspiring presence, an optimist who made one of his greatest dreams come true. I fancy myself a bit of a daredevil, having gone skydiving and taken trapeze lessons, and even though I completely respect Petit for his accomplishment, you'll be happy to know I'm going to keep my feet on the ground. Man on Wire gets an A– from me. It's definitely one of the year's best so far.

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