In the first few frames of Man on Wire, it's unclear whether the men on screen are terrorists or artists. The images are blurry and dark. The soundtrack is staccato, menacing. There is talk of "conquering the towers." And the ambiguity doesn't stop there. Part thriller, part poetic whimsy, Man on Wire takes advantage of this uncertainty. And like its subject -- the French performer, Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974 -- the documentary strikes the perfect, well, balance.
As a teenager in France, Philippe Petit was fascinated with the ongoing construction of what would become the world's tallest buildings, vowing to one day walk between them. Yet Petit's goal was not fortune and fame (although he did achieve the latter). "There was no why," Petit remarks at one point in the film. If there was any impetus behind "the artistic crime of the century," it was to undertake something so daring, so wacky, and so beautiful that people down below might call it art.
Which is to say that Petit's feat was no circus sideshow act, and Man on Wire is no dry retelling of a long-ago stunt. Rather, it is a poignant and exciting piece of work, one that manages to hold disparate elements together in a seamless, affecting narrative.
Director James Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip) draws on archival footage, as well as interviews with the major players, including Petit's pragmatic friend (Jean-Louis Blondeau), his girlfriend (Annie Allix), and more than one pot-smoking New York hippie. Marsh also dramatizes the story in scratchy black and white, a device that works surprisingly well: the recreations have the feel of a British heist movie. Petit's friends are recast as "The Inside Man" (Barry Greenhouse) and "The Australian" (Mark Lewis); the final walk is "le coup."
And the last element is Petit himself, who is strangely inspiring. A born storyteller, the wire-walker has the fiery charisma of a madman, one who'll convince you to come along on his crazy ride. His extemporaneous narration is as poetic as any script, and Marsh has the sense to let him speak freely. (When the director first met him, Petit announced, "I have the mind of a criminal," told him how to kill a man with a copy of People magazine, and then picked Marsh's pocket.)
The story that emerges -- six-and-a-half years of dreaming, eight months of planning, four hours under a tarp on the WTC's top floor, and at least one broken heart -- is magnificent, told with fervor and eloquence by Petit and his friends. And watching him up there on the cable, a speck of black against New York City's morning sky, is nothing short of marvelous. The accompanying score, most of it written by composer Michael Nyman, is as grand and soaring as the images of Petit himself.
Considering what became of the World Trade Center in 2001, this high wire act is only more astonishing today. Petit's performance cannot help but allude to that other well-executed (and horrific) plan, which Marsh wisely never mentions explicitly. And Petit's wire walk, which required breaking into the World Trade Center, smuggling yards of heavy cable up to the top floor, and camping out overnight, cannot help but challenge our definitions of words like artist, criminal, terrorist, freedom fighter, and mastermind.
It's a testament to Marsh's skill that we can marvel at Petit's quarter mile-high flips one moment, scoff at the psychological evaluation to which he was subjected the next, and leave the theater wondering, What would I do if I saw this man atop a skyscraper one bright Manhattan morning? Would I crane my neck to get a better view, or would I call the cops?