MAN ON WIRE (James Marsh)
To be able to fully understand the central subject of James Marsh’s acclaimed documentary MAN ON WIRE, you have to be able to identify with the said central subject— the tightrope walker Philippe Petit. You need to at least have a grasp of where he’s coming from, his dreams, his arrogance, his ego, his unshakable desire to break barriers, etc. etc.
MAN ON WIRE is a stirring feature by means of its construction. The story is built upon the premise of a man retelling how he and his crew (very much like Ocean’s eleven) managed to stage the highly dangerous tightrope stunt across the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. We see a dramatized account of the hours leading to the WTC performance in stunning Black and White; then, old footages of Philippe during his younger years are spliced in, showing us his previous escapades, how he prepared for them, and eventually, how he had this idea to pull off the stunt at the twin towers.
For me, the film’s most powerful scenes are:
1. When Philippe was retelling how he saw a story on the magazine about the construction of the twin towers. This guided the film henceforth;
2. When Philippe said how he just loved to climb and climb, and that he’d just leave the explanation to a psychologist as to why, and;
3. The tense final fifteen minutes of the film, where you see glimpses of the WTC stunt, and Philippe is in frenzy.
Like him or hate him, there’s no denying that Philippe Petit is a very complex and colourful character. You may like him for his boldness, his unyielding resolve, and his charisma the same way you may hate him for his narcissism, rebellion, and his need to prove something to the world. Nevertheless, Petit showed everybody that fear can be conquered, and for a Frenchman to conquer a towering American icon such as the twin towers, I’d say there goes your political statement.
The film is slow-building; it can be tedious at times, with so many characters offering their take on Philippe and the whole planning process for the WTC stunt, but MAN ON WIRE delivers what it promises: a rush of adrenaline at the end of the film without offering concrete answers as to “why” Philippe Petit did what he did; and that is a better choice made by the filmmakers because then, the audience will be inspired to analyze the complexity of the film further.