Review: James Marsh’s Man on Wire

Even the cops who arrested Philippe Petit were impressed by the young Frenchman’s daring.

Man on Wire
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Even the cops who arrested Philippe Petit were impressed by the young Frenchman’s daring, one of them going so far as to say that it was something you only saw “once in a lifetime.” Years earlier Philippe had dreamt of this day, but the Twin Towers weren’t ready for him yet, so he began with the Notre Dame before moving on to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The law caught up with him every time, but so did a flabbergasted public, who understood what he was doing may have been illegal but in no way wicked or mean—as one of Philippe’s friends succinctly puts it. And it is with the same awe of those who were lucky enough to have seen Philippe walking on what looked like a cloud that morning that director James Marsh, in an aesthetic mode best described as Errol Morris meets vintage Spike Jonze, chronicles the wiliness with which Philippe and a motley crew of friends succeeded in smuggling almost a ton’s worth of equipment up the Twin Towers so Philippe could skywalk between the two buildings. But Man on Wire is only superficially about the daredevil spirit—at least the one Philippe summoned when he stepped onto a heavy steel cable on the morning of August 7th, 1974. Marsh makes no mention of 9/11 throughout this awesome documentary experience, but the tragedy of the Twin Towers is never out of mind: One photograph of Philippe, taken by Jean-Louis Blondeau, who movingly weeps when he remembers the majesty of his friend’s accomplishment, features an airplane in the background, and as another accomplice notes, “The high wire act is framed by death, so you have to take it seriously.” Marsh evocatively and poignantly pumps up the thrill and anxiety of Philippe’s journey with old-school footage and photographs, as well as sly recreation, but by incorporating a plethora of photographs and footage of the men who built the Twin Towers into his deft mix, Man on Wire becomes a thrilling study in contrast, succeeding not only at extolling Philippe’s superhuman performance but attesting to the achievements of those who similarly defied death to give the man the stage he walked on.

 Cast: Philippe Petit, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, Jim Moore, Mark Lewis, Jean-Francois Heckel, Barry Greenhouse, David "Donald" Foreman, Alan "Albert" Welner  Director: James Marsh  Distributor: Magnolia Pictures  Running Time: 94 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2008  Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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