“Man on Wire” – 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Review

“My story is a fairy tale,” says French high wire-walker extraordinaire Philippe Petit in James Marsh’s brilliant, suspenseful documentary “Man on Wire.” Maybe so, but it is also a true tale, one that would be considered to be ridiculously implausible if it were written as fiction.

The film relates Petit’s death-defying stunt (referred to as “the coup” by Petit and his collaborators) of walking a high wire between the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, a feat he pulled off on August 7, 1974, after years of intense preparation. His plans were set into motion even before the towers were built, as Petit had been reading reports about their construction. “He felt like he owned those towers, like they were constructed especially for him,” one interviewee in the film says of Petit.

Petit’s high-wire walk is the stuff of legend and New York folklore, and it is illustrated with considerable verve and visual flash in Marsh’s rendering of these events. The film is structured as a heist thriller complete with a crew of collaborators (the participants compare it to a bank robbery) who are themselves almost as colorful and fascinating as its central figure. There is even an “inside man” working at the World Trade Center who assists them. The Herculean efforts involved, including reconnaissance missions to the construction site before the towers were built, are recreated with a canny mix of black-and-white reenactments and Petit’s own archival footage which alternate with Petit’s animated, almost manic recollections. How Petit and his crew were able to smuggle all the heavy equipment and personnel necessary for his stunt past security, and how they narrowly escaped discovery at several points, has to be seen to be believed.

Unsurprisingly, a dramatic feature is in the works based on this story. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine a fiction film that will match the resonance and three-dimensional attention to character and detail that is already fully in abundance in Marsh’s documentary. And there are few, if any, actors who would be more compelling than Petit himself, who doesn’t just sit and tell his story, but acts it out with the physical dexterity he exhibits in the high-wire acts he performs around the world. The events of September 11, 2001, which have now rendered Petit’s stage nonexistent, are not mentioned in the film, but they nevertheless exist as an unspoken coda to his story, making his extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime act an expression of retroactive tribute to the massive towers that inspired Petit’s incredible piece of performance art.

“Man on Wire” won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and opens on August 15.