Many of those entranced by James Marsh’s haunting Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) will be coming to Man On Wire because of the director’s capacity to evoke the lyricism and pathos from history, and I was such a viewer. When the review copy came my way, I snatched it up.
In this case, however, Marsh is not championing a subject without a voice; the seemingly unshakeable personality of ‘wire walker’ Phillippe Petit dominates the film, much as the intrepid young Frenchman sought to dominate the giddying heights of the World Trade Centre even while architects were still finalising the plans.
Petit’s obsession about illegally wire-walking the (then) record-breaking height of the space between the twin towers in 1974 develops with the style of a heist film. Unalloyed by any reservations about whether the subject will survive (Petit is interviewed extensively for Man On Wire), the viewer is swept up in the story of the young Frenchman’s audacity and ingenuity, and it’s easy to understand how he picked up followers, helpers (or enablers, if you prefer), and even a new love on the way to his dream.
Petit made several reconnaissance trips to New York, including one aborted mission attempt. Surveilling the daily life of one of the most important buildings in America in a suspicious manner would get you cell-space with the NYPD in short order these days. The relative ease with which the wire-walker defied security measures is part of the retro charm of this tale and its depiction of a young man who is either crazy or God-like – and ultimately comes off as a little of both.
The ingenuity with which Marsh has interwoven reconstructions with original footage of Petit’s practice runs in the French countryside is nothing less than jaw-dropping, and one immediately marvels that he found an actor who not only completely resembles Petit but shares his bravura on the high-wire. It wasn’t until watching the supplementary materials that I discovered the ‘stand in’ is young Petit himself in the lead-up to the event. The footage stayed undeveloped in Petit’s New York basement for decades, and looks like it was shot last summer. This is an astounding sleight-of-hand which must delight the more mischievous side of Marsh, somewhat subordinated to Petit himself in this work.
In one sense it’s easy to see why Man On Wire is proving popular with American audiences – it is practically a love-letter, via Petit’s mania, to the Twin Towers. Marsh juxtaposes early footage of the towers’ construction in such a way as to strike a visual echo of ground zero, and we are relieved when we realise that we are looking at the pictures of the birth of the WTC, rather than its death. This is ultimately a comfort-film, a wallowing in the nostalgia of a literally dizzying and quirky moment in the history of New York, and a celebration of youthful drive and hard work fulfilled.
It’s almost ironic that the subject of the endeavour is French and the man chronicling him English, since Man On Wire is a loving snapshot of the American dream. Perhaps it’s something you can only see clearly at a distance, both of geography and years. Ultimately Marsh has produced a work even more poetic than Death Trip, and this time the poetry emerges with less artifice.
Extras The accompanying film and commentary are more-than-usually illuminating. Amongst other things, the sheer extent of interview material Petit provided becomes clear; the fact that so much of his input had to be shelved for practical reasons only endears us further to him. It would have been nice to know a little more about Petit’s background, and how he was able to afford the endeavour both in terms of the numerous New York visits and – for instance – the astounding mock-up he made in a French field of the roof-sections of the Twin Towers. But the extras satisfy most other questions without become exhaustively pedantic, or wearing out our welcome for the subject matter.
Man On Wire is being hyped as ‘the best-reviewed film of all time’, and hype that surely is. On the other hand, I have tried to think what would knock any stars off of a rating for it. I can’t think of a damn thing.
Man On Wire is released on the 26th of December
18 December 2008